School board chooses to offer traditional classes and virtual option, recommend masks

    Steelville School Board members held a special meeting on Tuesday, July 28 to make some decisions on how to move forward with plans for the 2020-21 school year. The nearly two-hour meeting was primarily focused on two issues—learning options for beginning school and mask/face-covering requirements.


    Superintendent Mike Whittaker provided handouts with details on options available, along with other considerations school administrators are using to create a reopening plan for the district.
    Board members were mostly in agreement on choosing a learning model to begin the school year but expressed opposing opinions on the value of wearing masks. The board voted to begin school under a learning model where all students will be allowed to attend classes on campus for in-person learning, but the district will also offer an option of learning virtually by enrolling in Cardinal Academy (an online school taught by district teachers).
    The discussion on the wearing of face coverings was extended and included strong opinions on both sides of the issue. In the end, the board voted to go with the option of recommending but not requiring the wearing of masks or face coverings.
    At the beginning of the special meeting, Whittaker noted plans to begin school were still incomplete and will probably not be totally finished until school actually begins. He said, “We certainly do not have all the answers for this; it will be a learning as you go situation.”
    Learning options under consideration were created with the intention of reflecting the current status of the COVID-19 pandemic in the local area. The first option would be utilized if the risk of spreading the virus is very low or non-existent and would have all students attend classes on campus for in-person learning. Whittaker noted this would be essentially “going back to school as usual.”
    The second option—and the one selected at the current time by the board—is for in-person learning on campus with a virtual option. This model is intended for use when the risk of spreading COVID-19 is a possible concern or unknown.
    Model 3 is “blended learning” and would have students attend classes on campus on select days and virtually on other days. Students enrolled in the Cardinal Academy would also still have the option to continue learning virtually. This model is intended for use when there is an increase in COVID-19 cases in the area and/or there is an increased need for social distancing.
    In this option, students would probably attend classes two days each week and groups would be divided between Mondays and Tuesdays and Thursdays and Fridays, leaving Wednesdays as a virtual learning day for all. Whittaker noted, in discussions with health department personnel, the suggestion was made, if the district were to go with this option, to have the same groups of students attend classes on Mondays and Tuesdays, and other groups on Thursdays or Fridays. That would leave time between group meetings to see if any symptoms develop and to isolate groups, if needed.
    Model 4 would move all students on online learning through the district’s academy and would be used in the event there are significant increases in COVID-19 cases in the area and in-person learning is not an option.
    Whittaker also noted that students who enroll in the district’s Cardinal Academy will be required to log in to class at the time the teachers are presenting the class. “If our teachers are teaching, you’re hooked up online and paying attention,” he said.
    During discussion on the learning models, board member Sylvia Payne noted she liked Model 3 because of the smaller class sizes involved. However, Whittaker pointed out the concern expressed during discussions with administrators that online learning could be a challenge for younger children. “We feel it is very difficult to virtually educate our elementary students. We might want to have them here four days a week,” he said.
    Board member Tana Booker said, “I think the majority of parents and staff want to get back to some sort of normalcy, if there is such a thing. I like Model 2; it leaves the decision up to parents. If they feel the need to virtually learn, they can choose that.” She also agreed with the concern about teaching elementary students virtually.
    Whittaker reported the current plan would be to have individual discussions with the families who choose the virtual option in order to ensure they have the appropriate resources to successfully navigate that option. He also pointed out, when the district sends out the information to allow students to enroll for the academy, they will have a better idea of what will need to be done to prepare for that option and for the number of students who wish to attend in-person classes.
    Booker also pointed out that requiring students to use the virtual option, which is part of Model 3, could create a hardship for some families who don’t have the capabilities.
    Board President Tim Mullen referred to surveys that had been sent out to parents and staff members, and stated, according to those results, 72 percent of both groups “think school should resume in Model 1, essentially.” Payne noted, the way the question was worded, that answer could also include Model 2.
    Booker said, “Model 2 feels like a compromise between (both sides)—for those people who strongly support a virtual option you have that; and people who strongly support going back—you have that.”
    Whittaker also pointed out the concern with addressing transportation, especially in relation to the board’s decision on mask usage. He told the board that the district had not required masks for summer school, but some area schools were.
    The superintendent referred again to the survey and said that some had been “very opposed” to requiring masks, while others were very much in favor of it. In total, about 61 percent of both staff and parents responded that they did not want masks or face coverings to be required. The comment section of the survey had included very pointed opinions on both sides of the choice.
    “We are trying to do everything we can to make people safe,” Whittaker noted, reporting on the installation of plexiglass dividers in offices and on buses, “trying to do some things to help social distancing.” He also reiterated his concern with school buses because it is difficult to separate the students.
    In order to potentially alleviate some of the transportation concerns, the district is planning to open school buildings to students at 7 a.m. and close at 5 p.m. in order to give parents the option to drop their children off earlier and/or pick them up later, and therefore avoid the need for school transportation.
    Whittaker also noted, “We are planning to eat a lot of meals in the classrooms,” and said he was considering the purchase of large tents that could be used outdoors for both lunches and classes.
    Mullen questioned, “Can we successfully socially distance a school? I don’t think it’s very possible in elementary.”
    Whittaker agreed that social distancing is difficult, especially because of the need for transportation in this district. He gave the potential example of a classroom of 15 students who could be kept together as a group throughout the school day, but then go and get on 12 different buses to go home.
    Board member Jason Evans was in favor of Model 2. He said, “I like that it has options. And the reality is that we have no idea what it will be in a month or two. That gets our feet wet on virtual learning and that would have to make it more comfortable for (teachers).”
    The board also discussed possibilities for teachers who have pre-existing conditions that could cause them to be at higher risk for contracting the virus, and while no decisions were made on that, Whittaker said he would be reaching out to staff to find out what needs there are in order to help them to feel safe.
    The board voted to move forward with plans to begin school under Model 2.
    In reference to mask-wearing, Whittaker told the board, “When school starts, I will wear a mask. I just think it’s the right thing to do.” He pointed out that would be when he was in close proximity to others; he wouldn’t wear one in his office when he was appropriately socially distanced.
    Booker said, “The majority of people don’t want masks,” noting there was a very definite separation between those who do want them worn, and those who don’t. “But for those who are concerned and want their child to wear a mask, their option is the virtual (one)—where the other kids just want to get back to school.”
    Board member Kim Grayson, who was attending the meeting virtually, said, “I guess that we need to be considerate of our CDC (Centers for Disease Control and Prevention) recommendations—wearing a mask protects the other person, not you. So, I think we need to have our students, no matter what the age is, to wear masks when they’re close together. When they’re far apart, they can take the masks off. You don’t protect people by not wearing a mask. That’s my opinion. I will continue wearing a mask to protect other people.”
    Payne was also in favor of requiring them in the hallways or other situations where it was not possible to appropriately socially distance students.
    Whittaker noted one concern about required mask-wearing was for bus drivers because of the potential for decreased vision, especially with drivers who wear eyeglasses. He said that was why the district is looking at installing plexiglass dividers around the drivers.
    Booker asked, “Does anyone know what the effects of continuously wearing a mask are?” and board member Justin Strong noted his concerns about the uncertainties of the impact of that. Mullen referenced the CDC guidelines on mask-wearing and said those state that effective mask-wearing requires that masks are kept sanitary, noting that would not happen with students, especially if they are removing them from time to time throughout the day. All three agreed there were questions about the effectiveness of mask-wearing.
    Grayson asked if it would be possible for individual teachers to request their students wear masks. “Is that something we could think about, too? If they felt students in their class should wear them?”
    Whittaker responded that, in talking to administrators, no one has felt they wanted to leave that on the table because they believe it would be very hard to do in one class but not another.
    Mullen asked for Whittaker’s recommendation on the issue, and the superintendent noted he had some concern with masks on younger students, but Grayson noted, “My grandkids wear them fine, it’s not an issue.”
    Grayson went on to explain that her opinion on asking students to wear masks was for when they are in close proximity to one another. “We’ve always erred on the side of caution and safety for kids, and I think mask-wearing should be a goal, something we strive for and increase as the year goes on as kids get more used to it,” she said. “Based on science and what the CDC says about the spread of COVID, this is how we’re going to keep our kids safer.”
    Mullen questioned how that would be enforced, asking if the district would then be asking teachers to be a “mask monitor.” Grayson replied, “Teachers are pencil reminders, dress-code reminders. I know this is just another thing, but it is part of classroom management. I speak as a (former) teacher, so I can imagine what it would be like.”
    Mullen said, “I’m concerned it’s going to take an enormous amount of time on the part of staff.”
    Payne noted she felt it would be easier on the middle and high school level, but Strong said there would be kids who don’t want to do it. Evans said he’d rather not mandate either wearing or not wearing face coverings.
    Board member Scott Perkins interjected, “How can we say they have to wear a mask when no one in this room has one on?” Payne pointed out that those present at the meeting, which was held in the middle school cafeteria, were socially distanced in their seating.
    Booker said her personal opinion, after having looked at the question from the standpoint of teachers, administrators, stakeholders, and the science “on both sides,” was in favor of the second option—to recommend mask-wearing. “I just think we are going to have administrators fighting a losing battle (if masks are required).” She also said the majority of parents have said they don’t want their kids wearing one.
    Grayson asked to add one more point to the issue. “If the idea of wearing a mask is to protect other people, we would be protecting our teachers by having the kids wear masks,” she said.
    Whittaker asked the board, if they chose option 2 to recommend mask-wearing, if they would be opposed to a campaign to encourage wearing a mask. Booker agreed that was a good idea, and Evans noted that would give students the opportunity to make an educated choice.
    Whittaker added it was important for the district to express to community members its support for those who need to wear a mask, regardless of the decision on whether to require them in schools.
    The board voted to adopt Option 2 and recommend, but not require, face masks or coverings.
    Whittaker said, “We will recommend that, in high-traffic areas, people wear masks.” He noted he didn’t want people to feel like they have to wear one, but they should be aware there will be others who think they should and teach students to accept other choices. “We need to be conscious of other people’s feelings and needs,” he said.