The Columba Public School Board voted 6 -1 Monday night to begin the school year entirely online – a change from the intended in-person/hybrid plan introduced just a few weeks ago.
The meeting lasted for about three and a half hours, and included a presentation from Superintendent Dr. Peter Stiepleman, expert testimonies, a short public comment session, as well as many questions from the Board.
Stiepleman said the administration made the recommendation to begin the school year entirely online for a few reasons: the positivity rate in the community continues to rise and he’s concerned about the ability of the district to adequately staff schools, as 52 staff members have gone into quarantine since August 24th.
He said these two factors were evidence of widespread community coronavirus transmission.
“A full return to school is something that we all want for our children,” Stiepleman said, “but, at this time, we believe it’s impossible based on the data.”
Many concerns were brought up throughout the meeting including access to reliable internet for students, how to do physical and mental health well-being checks, the preparedness of staff to transition to fully virtual education, and whether childcare would be available to district staff.
Steipleman admitted that there are not yet answers to all of these questions, but said that he and others are working on – and are open to – creative solutions during this unprecedented time.
During the public comment section, several representatives from teachers’ unions, including the Columbia Missouri State Teachers Association [CMSTA] and the Columbia Missouri National Education Association [CMNEA] spoke.
CMSTA co-presidents Ariel Schwarting and Kerri Smith asked the Board to remember that teachers do want to be in the classroom with students, and they would like the opportunity to have some face-to-face contact with students, so that they and their parents could be educated on virtual resources.
But they stressed the importance of teacher safety.
“We recently surveyed our members and found that many of them are interested in hearing clear plans and procedures when it comes to leave associated with COVID exposure,” Schwarting said. “We believe it is important for all employees to know what their job expectations are if they are required to isolate or quarantine due to exposure within their workplace.”
Kathy Steinhoff, the President of the CMNEA, said that starting the school year entirely online is not ultimately what any teacher wants or what many of them were planning for – even as recently as last week – “but it does seem like it’s the right call. Our teachers are desperate to get back to seeing all of our students, but we want to do so safely. For our sake, but also for their sake.”
Steinhoff added that there was never going to be a perfect solution to reopening this Fall. “It was always a matter of trying to make the best out of a bad situation.”
After several more questions, and as the meeting wound down, Board member Dr. Della Streaty-Wilhoit said she was sure that someone would be unhappy with the night’s decision, but a decision had to be made nonetheless.
“I feel that as a parent or grandparent, I would want to know today. ‘Tell me where I’m gonna be,’ so I can plan accordingly for the structure of my child or my grandchildren,” Streaty-Wilhoit said. “I may not like it, but at least I can go forward.”
And, as the role was called, the motion to approve the administration’s recommendation – to start the school year entirely online and reassess as time goes on – was passed 6 to 1.
David Seamon was one of the Board members that voted in support of the administration’s recommendation. He says that as a parent of school age children himself, he understands parents’ frustration.
“I thought that was the correct vote,” Seamon said. “We want to ensure that our kids and our teachers are taken care of, and they have a safe environment to teach and learn in, and this is the only way we can right now.”
Blake Willoughby was the lone “No” vote, and he said that he doesn’t want anyone to misconstrue his vote as a lack of faith in online education, but rather as a call to the Board and administration to think of ways to get younger students, as well as low-income and disabled students back into the classroom sooner.
“It was a ‘no’ vote to say that I want to see us continue to look at options for hybrid,” Willoughby said. “I fully support and I stand with this board that we're going online. I stand with our administrators. That's what we're gonna do, and it's gonna be great, but I want to see us, as quickly as possible, get to a hybrid model.”
Willoughby added that CPS teachers and staff have been preparing for the possiblity of virtual education all summer, so it will be vastly different from the quick transition to online learning in March.
"Give this a shot. Give our teachers the chance to prove that they are able to do this online. I know they're going to be able to. I know that they're going to go far and exceed what you think is going to be possible,” Willoughby said. “And so, let us know how you are feeling, and if you are feeling that there is a lack of quality in the education your child is receiving online, let us know.”
Dr. Stiepleman said people can expect school to be virtual through at least the end of September, but he added that the decision to remain online will be reviewed regularly – at the scheduled Board meeting on the 14th, as well as any special sessions that are called.
He also went on to explain that if a decision is made to change the method of education delivery – from fully online to hybrid/in-person or to full in-person classes – there would be several weeks of lead-up time for parents before any change went into effect.
Classes will begin Tuesday, September 8, 2020.