All 555 of Missouri's schools closed

BY 1 P.M. THURSDAY, the latest update available from the Missouri Department of Elementary and Secondary Education, all of the state’s 555 school districts had announced closures.

During an open session meeting held Wednesday evening to discuss policy regarding the COVID-19 outbreak, West Plains R-7 School Board members voted unanimously to extend school break an additional two weeks through April 3.

Beyond that, school officials will revisit the possibility of further closure, taking into consideration developments that unfold during the next two weeks regarding the new coronavirus, including recommendations made by health officials to slow the spread of it.

Superintendent Dr. Lori Wilson, President Jim Thompson, Vice President Cindy Tyree and board members Sam Riggs, Lee Freeman, Brian Mitchell and Christena Coleman were present for the meeting. Member Courtney Beykirch participated and voted via phone call.    

A WEEK OF PLANNING

Plans to distribute meals to students, continue paying staff and enable students to do schoolwork from home were discussed, as well as limitations to gathering in campus buildings during the closure. Discussion was tempered with a caveat that the current situation is unprecedented and ever-changing.  

The district will not have to extend the school year as a result of the board’s vote, and the two weeks of unexpected absence will not be counted against the school as far as funding.

“In order for us to close the school it does not take a vote of the board, so I just wanted to say that; but I do have a resolution that I wanted us to go through,” Superintendent Dr. Wilson said in starting the discussion. “It is not in its final form. It is in verbiage, but not on the final paper. I just want to have a conversation, and if anyone has more information than me, I would be happy to have them sit in.”

By the middle of last week, a meeting was called with administrators from other districts to talk about preliminary plans for district closures, she explained, and by March 11, the urgency to lock down a plan was more evident and a meeting with the area superintendents was called.

Howell County Health Department Director Chris Gilliam was part of that conversation, plus directives and recommendations from the Centers for Disease Control (CDC) were considered, she said.

She, Fairview Superintendent Aaron Sydow and Junction Hill Superintendent John Dern took part in a task force held Wednesday, meeting with government and health officials to talk about topics including current infection statistics and options for emergency policy changes.

‘WE WILL GO OLD SCHOOL’

The possibility of moving to online courses was discussed, but the consensus was that not enough children are equipped either with adequate internet access or technological equipment to make it feasible, particularly for students needing accommodations for an IEP, or individualized education program.

“We had a meeting this morning and I told our group that we will not expect them to have Google classroom, we will not expect them to turn in anything virtually,” said Wilson. “We will go old school and we will go paper/pencil.”

If homework packets are sent home, they will not be graded. Even if they aren’t completed, Wilson said she felt it was her duty to give children the opportunity to continue learning. She added she understands there may be extenuating circumstances in the student’s household, including the possibility that older students may be called upon to provide care for younger siblings.

“I feel that as an educator it is my duty, it is my calling, it is my mission, to make sure, even if they don’t do it, I am giving them the option,” Wilson said.

The plan is to have no new learning, only review to help students retain their current knowledge. Packets will likely be offered online for families that have access, with an option for parents to pick up packets at district buildings.

Details regarding special education accommodations and Missouri Department of Elementary and Secondary Education (DESE) requirements under the circumstances were presented by Director of Special Services Dr. Amy Ross.

KEEPING KIDS FED

As has been considered in other districts nationwide, to meet the needs of students that rely on school meals due to food insecurity, a plan has been proposed for packaged meals to be handed out at several points, including one at the South Fork school and four in West Plains.

The proposed distribution sites in West Plains are the high school parking lot, the Boys and Girls Club parking lot, the Walmart parking lot and a site on the north end of town, possibly at Parkway Shopping Center off of Porter Wagoner Boulevard or the parking lot of the new Ozarks Medical Center thrift store, further north on Porter Wagoner Boulevard.

The meals will be handed out during designated hours and include breakfast and lunch, initially 100 at each site, except for the Walmart distribution spot, with 200 provided there as it is expected to be a potentially higher-traffic area.

The number of meals will be adjusted according to need, no questions asked and no proof of student enrollment required. The focus will be on keeping kids fed, Wilson said.

The meals will be reimbursed to the district through a grant, Director of Human Resources and Student Services Wes Davis said. Additionally, backpacks provided through Bridges will be sent on the buses so parents don’t have to make more than one trip.    

For more details about West Plains R-7’s plans during the closure, visit zizzers.org.

At about 11:30 a.m. Thursday, West Plains area rural school administrators jointly announced their buildings will also be closed through April 3. For details, parents and patrons are encouraged to visit individual school websites.

By 1:30 p.m. Thursday, according to data from the Department of Elementary and Secondary Education, all of Missouri’s 555 school districts had formally announced closures.

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