The Kirksville R-III School Board voted Tuesday to open on Aug. 25 at Level 1 of its return model, which will have students and faculty in buildings each day.
Dr. Jeremy Houser was the only board member who was in favor of starting at Level 2, which would have middle school and high school students attending class every other day. Board member Gay Nichting was a late arrival to the Zoom meeting and abstained from voting. Houser agreed with Superintendent Robert Webb and other board members that online learning is not as good as in-person, but believed risks could be better managed at Level 2.
“With that in mind, my brain goes down this rabbit hole of, why would we not just start at Level 2? Get more social distancing, get more balance between on-site and online education, and try to mitigate any problems that could force us to Level 3 … which is everybody is off-site all the time, kids without money starve on a regular basis, kids go without parents overlooking them to provide a good education,” Houser said. “At least on an every-other-day fashion, these kids get their education on one day, they go home and hopefully do their homework, come back and get more education and more homework. In my mind, it’s almost the best of both worlds. It reduces the chance of spread and it might not even reduce the quality of education that’s happening.”
Houser then mentioned how Sunday’s Class of 2020 graduation ceremony went. He said students were masked during the ceremony, but many took them off and were huddled close together before and after the event.
“There’s the realistic aspects of things versus the desired,” Houser said.
The district is following the guidance of a chart established by the Harvard Global Health Institute. That method is organized by four different levels, similar to the district’s instruction model, that are separated by cases and hospitalizations over a rolling seven-day period. The chart will serve as a guideline on when the district might want to pivot to a different level of its own plan. That chart is currently on the district’s website and will be more front and center soon with a new dashboard on the site.
Level 1 of the Harvard-based chart, which has been revamped for this area under consultation with the Adair County Health Department, A.T. Still University, Northeast Regional Medical Center and Complete Family Medicine, has a window of .25-2.25 new cases per day and .1-.3 hospitalizations per day.
Webb said he spoke with staff from the Adair County Health Department prior to Tuesday’s meeting, who told him the county is at 137 cases. That number is three higher than an update given by the health department on Monday but is the same total represented on the Missouri Department for Health and Senior Service’s website.
With that data, Adair County is at a daily average for the last week of 1.85 cases, which is already close to the top threshold of Level 1. The county still has only had three total hospitalizations, which happened in early spring.
Board member Dr. Adam Moore helped organize the coalition that developed the chart and believes the raw data is the best way to make decisions.
“There’s a whole coalition working on this by the numbers,” Moore said. “They’re trying to take emotion out of it, they’re trying to take fear out of it. They’re trying to use common sense objectives that other people much brighter than myself and most people at the table have put together.”
Houser said he didn’t think numbers alone can tell the full story. He was also frustrated as Moore and board member John McConnell asked to vote before 6 p.m. because they had other obligations.
“I hate rushing something if we’re not done talking about it, especially one of the most important decisions we’re making for this year,” Houser said, then going into his concerns with the model. “… There is the reality that teachers are fearful, you’ve got kids who are fearful. The kids do have this out, they can just say, ‘I’m going online.’ The other half, the teachers, are not necessarily being as considered in that, I think.”
During the meeting, Webb provided early numbers on registrations they have received. So far 1,154 responses have been submitted online. Webb said parents who turned in a physical paper had not been added in yet. Of those 1,154 parents, 92.7 percent have signed up for in-person classes. Only 84 have selected online-only ahead of the Aug. 7 deadline.
Board member Gayla McHenry said she has had several teachers from the Primary School and Ray Miller tell her they were in favor of in-person classes because that is how they build relationships with the students. McHenry didn’t say how many teachers expressed those feelings to her, which differ from a survey released last week by the Missouri National Education Association.
That survey asked 24,270 teachers from across the state about their feelings ahead of re-opening. In the survey, 84 percent said they were very stressed about school picking up, and just over 70 percent favored beginning the year online. Webb said a survey was taken of teachers in the district, but it has not been released yet.
“If (parents) are concerned or worried, then (online) is what they need to choose,” McHenry said. “We’ve got to go with the numbers, we’ve got to go with what’s being presented.”
In regards to how the district will pivot between its levels, Webb said the community will be notified 72 hours in advance of a change. There was also discussion on how long they decide to stay at one level. Webb said he thought it would be good to go on a week-to-week basis — barring an immediate emergency to close down — since the data is on a weekly timeline. He and Houser expressed concern over changing the level every few days.
But that discussion didn’t go any further and was not voted upon.