Community conversation looks at online and in-person learning

Eufemia Didonato

Roger McKinney   | Columbia Daily Tribune COVID-19 vaccines: What are the potential side effects? Experts say side effects from the COVID-19 vaccine range from soreness to fatigue. Masks should be worn at all times in school. Students and teachers need consistency and stability. Distancing is important to control the spread of […]

Roger McKinney
| Columbia Daily Tribune


Masks should be worn at all times in school.

Students and teachers need consistency and stability.

Distancing is important to control the spread of COVID in schools.

Those were the top-rated items in a thought exchange asking participants of a virtual World Cafe community conversation what else the district should consider for attending school four days a week, two days a week or online only.

Respect and appreciation for teachers, staff and counselors was also rated highly, as was that when elementary schools were in session, staff shortages were a huge issue that would need to be addressed if students return.

The school district convened community leaders and health professionals in the first hour and teachers, principals, a parent and a student in the second hour of the online event.

Mayor Brian Treece announced at the event that a limited number of vaccines are on the way to Columbia and Boone County.

More: How does the COVID-19 vaccine work?

There would be 51,000 doses of the Pfizer vaccine arriving in Columbia for hospital and nursing home workers by Dec. 14 or 15, he said, followed by 105,000 doses of the Moderna vaccine. There are 350,000 people eligible to receive the vaccine, he said.

School board members were in attendance and will receive a report on the results at the board’s Dec. 14 meeting. Superintendent Peter Stiepleman moderated the event, except for a few minutes he was absent after his computer froze. There were more than 300 people attending the Zoom webinar, he said.

Health orders are issued in response to the spread of the disease in the community, Treece said.

“We respond to factors that are in the community to make those decisions,” he said.

Situations like large Thanksgiving gatherings and private homecoming celebrations make stopping the spread of COVID more difficult, he said.

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The promise of a vaccine on the horizon may cause too many to let their guard down, said Battle High School teacher Susie Adams.

“Are people going to become too relaxed in following protocols?” Adams said.

The disease in the schools is a reflection of the disease spread in the community as a whole, health professionals said.

“The pain you feel with your staff is magnified in all the hospitals,” said Robin Blount, chief medical officer of Boone Hospital Center. “Our ICU capacity is very, very stressed right now.”

The transmission rate in schools, testing capabilities and contact tracing in the schools is needed information in making the decision about returning students to classrooms, said Jennifer Goldman, a pediatric disease specialist in Kansas City.

Testing was to begin Wednesday for school district students and staff who exhibit symptoms. Parents need to call 573-214-3975 before bringing a child in for testing.

“There is not a lot of evidence to tell us what is the right model” for schools, said Ashley Millham, medical director for the Columbia/Boone County health department. “We all want kids to be back in school, but safely. Your hospitals are about full. Really, really full.”

Children are able to wear masks and follow rules, said Kristin Sohl, a pediatrician with University of Missouri Health Care. 

“It’s really very much about citizenship,” Sohl said of masks. “It’s about treating each other with respect.

More in education news: Virtual celebration planned for University of Missouri December grads

“We want to see some consistency for our kids,” said health department director Stephanie Browning. Schools opening and closing repeatedly isn’t helpful, she said.

Health security is important in education, said Christelle Ilboudo, pediatric infectious disease specialist with MU Health Care.

“When a teacher feels safe, the children feel safe and parents feel safe,” Ilboudo said.

Elementary students are scheduled to return to school four days a week on Jan. 11 and middle and high school students are scheduled to return to schools four days a week on Jan. 19, based on current school board votes.

The district started the school year with all schools online.

Elementary students returned to classrooms four days a week on Oct. 19, but staffing problems caused by illness resulted in them returning to online learning less than a month later.

Teachers are using all the skills they have learned throughout their careers in navigating online teaching during the pandemic, said Helen Porter, principal at Oakland Middle School.

“It’s working,” she said. “It took awhile, but it’s working.”

Reaching all her students and getting them to engage took some time, but it’s working now, said Ann Alofs, a teacher at West Boulevard Elementary School.

“It’s taken some trial and error and I’ve failed them at times,” Alofs said.

Parents should be as involved in getting their children to engage in online learning as they are getting their children in the  classrooms, said Eryca Neville, principal at Douglass High School.

“We are building this plane while flying it,” she said. “We have never been here before.”

Students are missing peer group interactions and their social skills regress when they’re not in school, said parent Amie VanMorlan, who also acknowledged the health risks.

Learning online doesn’t work for all students, said Nadia Gresham, a 10th-grader at Rock Bridge High School.

“Some kids excel on Zoom” while some flounder, Gresham said. “In high school, your grades do matter. You have to have that credit.”

The school district has used the community conversations in the past when considering issues including bond issues, tax levies and expanding early childhood education.

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