On Monday night, the Columbia Board of Education voted to return all students to in-seat learning after Spring Break – on Monday, April 5.
The Board’s vote to return all students to in-seat learning was unanimous.
This followed a lengthy presentation from Superintendent Peter Stiepleman that covered everything from the current COVID-19 case rate in the community, vaccination rates of CPS staff and teachers, as well as the status of safety precautions – like air ionization units.
Stiepleman said the current data was “encouraging” even following elementary students' return to full in-person learning and high schoolers' return to a hybrid model on January 19.
He cited a community case rate, as well as a hospitalization rate for the Columbia community that remained low or even reduced.
A metric that the District has used throughout the pandemic to gauge the safety of a return to in-seat learning is the 14-Day Rate Per 10,000 People tracker. Originally, the District said that any number greater than or equal to 50 meant “all virtual” education. And as of March 8, the current rate is 11.5 percent.
Stiepleman also noted that many teachers and staff have already been vaccinated – even though Phase 1B - Tier 3, which includes K-12 teachers, does not activate until next Monday, March 15th.
“We have uploaded a vaccine tracker on our website,” he said. “So currently more than 700 people have been vaccinated. I know a great many were scheduled for this past weekend and this past week. So I expect that this will continue to climb.”
According to the Staff Vaccination Tracker, as of March 8, 842 or 25 percent of CPS staff has been vaccinated.
Steipleman said that he took this data and spoke with several local health experts.
“I asked – given our current data – do you believe CPS schools can continue its phase in to five days a week, in-seat, and the answer was a direct ‘yes,’” Stiepleman said. “One said, ‘This is a good time. CPS has been diligent about masks.’ Another said, ‘You started with elementary originally, but it’s time for middle and high school.’ And another said, 'Yes, it’s the time.'”
He said that by beginning classes after Spring Break, teachers have the time to receive at least the first dose of the COVID-19 vaccine, and it gives the District time to prepare things like bus routes for students.
Stiepleman added that this could change and that the new superintendent and the board may have to wrestle with a decision again – if a new COVID surge were to occur.
But, he said, “I think that there is probably some more promise in the coming year than we had at the beginning of this year."
Others Begin to Look for Possible Lessons Learned From COVID-19
Prior to the Board’s vote and Stiepleman’s presentation, representatives from both Columbia teachers groups addressed the Board – sharing their recommendations, as well as asking the Board to consider some of the possible lessons already learned from the pandemic.
Kathy Steinhof, the President of the Columbia Missouri National Education Association, or CMNEA, spoke first and began by stating that the “future looks bright.”
“We have been very pleased with how smoothly the four-day return has gone,” Steinhof said. “There may have been glitches in some places, but overall, it was the right move at the right time.”
Steinhof noted that even though the past year has been a challenge for everyone, she hoped that “despite the harm that this year may have caused, some good has come from it and we have learned some lessons.”
Specifically, she noted the potential for cross-district collaboration, individual student interventions – both things that were difficult due to scheduling prior to the pandemic – as well as the possibility keeping an asynchronous Wednesday model for secondary students.
“I do hope we consider how we might be able to make future school calendars or even find more time this year, particularly for our older students that incorporate some asynchronous learning time, which allows them to benefit from being more self-directed independent learners, but also gives our teachers time for common planning and focused interventions,” Steinhof said.
Ariel Schwarting, co-president of the Columbia Missouri State Teachers Association, or CMSTA, spoke next and echoed Steinhof’s comments.
She asked the Board to recall how “essential” Wednesday workdays were to teachers' success during the last year.
She then read a brief comment from a member teacher, which stated, “teachers are consistently asked to give more and more of ourselves to our job outside of our contract hours, which is very quickly leading to teacher burnout, and only contributing to our national teacher and educator shortage.”
Schwarting then asked the Board, in the future, to consider some sort of planned, scheduled time within contact hours for teachers – such as an early release once a week, an entire day off once a month or even a continuation of a four-day school week – to allow for planning and professional development.
She also added that there were some concerns from membership about the fact that the April 5 return will not give all teachers adequate time to get both doses of the vaccine and for the vaccine to offer maximum protection.
According to the CDC, this full effectiveness of vaccines is reached about two weeks after the second vaccine dose is received.
Later in the meeting during public comment, several high school students addressed the Board – again, asking them to look at what the pandemic has taught them about how school days could be changed to benefit students, staff and teachers.
One student, Sally, who said they had the “misfortune” of being a Rockbridge senior during a pandemic shared that she was concerned: “My biggest concern is that we’re not taking away enough lessons from this pandemic,” she said.
She said she was worried about a return to the previous status quo where there was less flexibility for students and where pressure was higher without resources to support student well-being, especially since students’ mental health has so often been cited as an argument for a quicker return to in-seat learning.
“I think that virtual school has been extremely difficult, but it has also brought to light a lot of issue that we seem to have ignored,” Sally said. “[Students] felt as if getting an A in a class was more important than anything else – more important than their physical health, academic integrity, more important than learning in the class.”
Sally finished her comment by musing about what her younger brother’s experience would be like in CPS schools – “I think that we need to show that we are taking the necessary lessons that we have from this year.”