Following a vote at last night’s Columbia Public Schools Board Meeting, CPS students will be returning – in some capacity – to in-seat learning beginning January 19.
Elementary students – including preschoolers – will be returning four days a week, and secondary students, those in middle and high school, will be returning to a hybrid model.
This hybrid plan will split secondary students into groups. One group will attend in-seat classes on Monday/Tuesday and the other on Thursday/Friday. On virtual learning days, there will be some Zoom instruction paired with self-guided work. Wednesdays will remain as before.
During Monday evening’s more than four-hour meeting, the board got an update on COVID-19 from Superintendent Dr. Peter Stiepleman and heard from many concerned parents, teachers and staff – some in support of a return to in-seat learning and some in support of remaining entirely virtual.
But first they heard from representatives of both the Columbia Missouri National Education Association, or CMNEA, and the Columbia Missouri State Teachers Association, or CMSTA – groups which represent teachers and staff throughout the district.
Kathy Steinhof, the President of CMNEA, spoke first and urged the Board to consider the needs and fears of teachers before voting to send students back to in-seat learning.
“I am not dismissing the cost of being virtual. We know virtual learning is not ideal, and we are keenly aware that our students and our families and the community and our employees are facing other critical and unintended consequences of our district being virtual,” Steinhof said. “But virtual has kept many in our community safe and potentially alive. It doesn't make sense to give up on the data driven plan we have been committed to, and we're so close to the finish line.”
This “finish line” she said included the fact that many, but not all, ionization units – which purify and clean the air in classrooms – are installed, and that the coronavirus vaccine should shortly be available to teachers, as a part of Phase 1B under the state’s vaccine rollout plan.
Ariel Schwarting, the Co-President of CMSTA said her organization had surveyed members and found that approximately half of the elementary educators who responded would be comfortable returning to in-seat learning, while the data “overwhelmingly” showed that secondary teachers were not.
“When looking across all levels surveyed, the common thread was this – teachers and staff members will feel more confident in a return when they have had the opportunity to receive the vaccine,” Schwarting added. “73 percent of those at the elementary and secondary levels that currently don't feel comfortable returning to an in-seat model stated that their opinion on the return would change [if vaccinated].”
Superintendent Dr. Peter Stiepleman then proceeded to give a lengthy update on the latest COVID data, the district’s readiness to return to in-seat learning, as well as insight into staffing and the availability of substitute teachers.
One metric the district had used previously to gauge the safety of a return to in-seat learning was the 14-Day Rate Per 10,000 People tracker. According to the tracker, any number greater than or equal to 50 meant “all virtual” education. And as of yesterday, January 11, that number was 82.4
Stiepleman said during his presentation that “masks work,” and that masks will be “required, not simply expected” when students return to the classroom.
He added that bus routes are prepared for students’ return, the nutrition staff is operating at 85-88 percent, and Grab & Go meals are available to virtual learners. But he was also sure to note that a return to in-seat learning would reduce the number of delivery sites because they wouldn’t have the staff to do both full in-person meal service and deliver meals.
He then stressed that the district needed substitute teachers – of the district’s nearly 500 substitutes, approximately half said they would still be willing to sub, but only 86 have actually been in a classroom.
“This is not unique to Columbia, right? Everybody is sort of having this issue,” Stiepleman said, “and when I talked to my colleague in Springfield, this is exactly what they are doing. They’re using anybody that isn’t a classroom teacher to fill in those gaps. It hasn’t been easy, but they’ve been successful.”
Following Stiepleman presentation, the Board moved on to “New Business,” the first piece of which was to approve a resolution that called for all school personnel – including therapists, food service workers, bus drivers, etc. – be vaccinated alongside teachers.
It passed unanimously.
Board Member Discussion on Possible January 19 Return
The Board then moved on the big-ticket item of the night – decided how, and if, CPS students would be returning to in-seat learning on January 19.
There was much confusion at this point about the rules of order and, more than once, President Helen Wade apologized for the confusion. One member even referred to the discussion as a bizarre version of “Who’s on First.”
Board Member Susan Blackburn said she saw much to be encouraged by – the vaccine on the horizon, quarantine times reduced, and research that showed schools were not a major source of coronavirus transmission.
Board Member David Seamon said he was concerned that if teachers were not vaccinated before the return to the classroom, the district would be making “the same mistake” they had in the fall.
“And I don't understand why we're why we would do that, he said. “Why we put ourselves through that, our community through that. We all have legitimate concerns… but if we do this, we're not addressing those concerns. You don't alleviate any of them. People will still go home and feel that they're bringing death and severe illness home to their family.”
Board Member Chris Horn seconded these concerns.
“I am not inclined to put our educators, our students, our community at further risk,” Horn said. “Particularly when the vaccination is not here yet. With the vaccination here, that’s a little bit of a changer to me.”
Dr. Della Streaty-Wilhoit, another board member, said she had spent time praying on the issue and had changed her mind – deciding to embrace a return to in-seat learning – because the community had made it clear that “we cannot go on without putting our students back in school.”
Board Member Blake Willoughby said that he hoped his plan of returning elementary students to in-seat learning four days a week and older students to a hybrid model would be a way to get the district moving forward.
“We need to try again,” he said.
Last to speak was President Wade, who acknowledged the sacrifices of families and of staff, and said that she had read 1000s of emails.
“I find myself believing and perceiving that our community’s collective tolerance for the continuation of an all virtual educational model for the purpose of mitigating the spread of the COVID-19 infection simply isn't there,” she said. “It doesn't make it right and it doesn't make it wrong.”
She then stressed the important of the community doubling down on other prevention measures – like social distancing and mask wearing – as students return to the classroom.
“And I’ll tell you why: It will keep your kids in school. It will keep your teachers from having to quarantine if you send your child who may be asymptomatic. It will keep our teachers from getting sick,” Wade said.
And, once she finished speaking, the meeting was opened up to comments from the public.
Public Comments on Possible January 19 Return
Many stood and spoke during the public comments – concerned parents, teachers, community members, as well as business leaders.
One of the first to speak was Dustin Frieda, a CPS orchestra teacher who said he had concerns about his students well-being while the district remained virtual. He said he’d spoken to numerous students about feelings of suicide or abuse they had suffered during the pandemic.
“And they all tell me the same thing: They’re struggling. They’re sad. They’re overwhelmed. They’re hurting. They’re not learning. And they’ve almost given up or they’ve already given up,” Frieda said.
A parent then came forward – frustrated by the Board decision to not follow their own previously set limits – of less than 50 on the 14-Day Rate Per 10,000 People tracker.
“I would not have decided to switch my kids from virtual to in-person in December had I known that the rules of the game were going to be changed. I am now told that I cannot change course and my children are to be in-seat regardless of the outcome of tonight’s Board decision,” she said. “To say I am upset by this is an understatement.”
Brittany Fatoma also spoke. She’s the founder of the local Teacher of Color Support Group and the current executive director of the Worley Street Roundtable. She said she was disheartened and hoped the Board would consider the situation that black educators found themselves in.
“As a Black educator, standing on the shoulders of numerous Black educators that came before me, I encourage you, as you make this decision, do not sacrifice our bodies.”
Another parent then came forward, near tears. She said CPS children were suffering and had “fallen on the sword” for long enough.
“These kids need school. These kids need stability. It’s time that we put the children first,” she said.
Others asked the Board to consider things like child abuse rates, grades compared to before the pandemic, and suicidality among youth when making their decision. While still others stressed the need for greater respect and communication, as tension is high in the community.
After nearly an hour of public comment, it was finally time for the Board to vote. First up was Board Member Chris Horn’s motion to have all classes remain virtual for the short term.
This failed five to two.
Next up, was the deciding vote – either Board Member Willoughby’s hybrid plan would be approved or a complete return to in-seat learning, as had been decided upon last year, would be implemented.
President Wade called for the vote – Yes. Yes. Yes. Yes. No. No. Yes. – and with that, “the motion passes,” Wade said.
Meaning elementary students return to four days a week of in-seat learning on January 19, while older students return to a hybrid model where they are split into two groups that alternate – two days in-seat and two days virtual.
Before the close of the meeting, CMNEA President Kathy Steinhof returned to the podium. She said that while the night’s vote had not ended in a way most of her teachers would feel comfortable, “we’re ready to embrace them [our students] when they come – maybe not with a real hug or a real high five – but we’re going to do what we do.”