Willow Springs School Board Talks COVID-19 Updates

At the first School Board meeting since school began on August 24, COVID-19 was a heavily discussed subject. On September 14, the Board assembled with Bill Hall, Superintendent of Schools, and the administration staff of each of the campuses.
During the administration reports, Dr. Marty Spence expressed concern for teachers’ wellbeing because teachers have to provide two different models of education this year (seated instruction and distance learning), the shape of which can change daily with students moving in and out of seated learning. 
“I don’t feel like we’re necessarily taking the best care of our people,” Dr. Spence said about the teachers. 
Mr. Bobby Cottengim in the elementary school informed the Board that the requests and changes in and out of virtual/distance learning takes up his workday every Monday. He agreed with Dr. Spence that the overall quality of education provided this year is lacking because, “...you can’t do two things really well.” Although, he assured the Board that daily life at school looks very normal for the kids in elementary grades. 
Dr. Tina Spencer in the middle school also reported on the significant amount of time she dedicates each day towards answering questions about and shuffling pupils in and out of distance/virtual learning, as well as helping parents to troubleshoot technical difficulties associated with online learning. She also reported fatigue and frustration among her staff members. 
Mr. Bill Hall gave a report on enrollment numbers as of Monday afternoon, noting that every time there is a positive case of COVID-19 in the student body, the numbers change. There are 42 students enrolled in Early Childhood, all of which are in seated instruction. 
There are 463 elementary school students, 421 of which are in seated instruction; 40 are in distance learning. Two are in virtual learning. The difference between the two online versions is virtual learners utilize for-profit providers, whereas distance learners use the school district’s own teaching resources. 
In the middle school, there are 380 students, 325 of whom are in school. 49 students are using distance learning, and 6 are virtual learners. 
There are 392 high schoolers this year, of which 355 are in seated instruction. 36 are distance learning, and 1 is a virtual learner. 
The total enrollment across all schools is 1,277, down from 1,338 last year. 30 to 40 pupils in the district have elected to do homeschooling. Their parents or caretakers are providing their own curriculum. School Board President Tony Friga wondered how many of “the district’s” pupils are attending the newly opened Neighborhood Christian Schools in Hutton Valley. 
Hall said the very nature of the pandemic is that education will suffer. Disrupting the school year with taking kids in and out for positive cases of COVID-19 is a, “rollercoaster,” he said, “...and I don’t see any end in sight...It’s going to be very difficult to keep kids from being quarantined.”
Hall gave a  comprehensive report, using figures current as of Monday afternoon. He highlighted the sheer amount of time and effort required to perform contact tracing after a positive case is identified. The school nurse has been performing the contact tracing personally, identifying significant contacts who have been within 6 feet of each case for longer than 15 minutes. 
In an interview with Howell County News on Friday, September 18, Hall reported updates to the numbers presented at the School Board meeting. So far this school year, there have been 14 positive cases across the student body. 12 of the cases were at the high school, and 2 were at the middle school. As of Friday afternoon, there were no positive cases at the elementary. 
Those 14 positive cases resulted in the quarantining of 142 students, most of whom attend the high school. 119 high schoolers, 6 middle schoolers, and 7 elementary school students have been quarantined, Hall reported. 59 students have returned from quarantine, and 83 remain in. More than 20 students are scheduled to return to school by the time this article is on newsstands. 
There have been six cases among the staff members: three teachers and two support staff members. Predominantly, the teachers are at the high school.
Hall’s assessment is the school can be doing better with social distancing, although practices are improving, he reported in the interview. He said the declining numbers of quarantined students after each positive case show that social distancing practices are improving. 
“Several of our positives have been directly tied to athletics,” Hall said at the School Board meeting, “[Varsity] volleyball is done for two weeks.”
There are quite a few football players out of the game this season, but not entirely due to COVID-19. Some are out with other illnesses or injuries. 
Dr. Spence reported in the meeting there were two positive cases on the volleyball team, and the entire varsity squad was quarantined on a recommendation from the coaches. There were 2 positive cases out of that team, but the team had to be quarantined.
On a positive note, the marching band is back together and plans to perform at this Friday’s Homecoming game. 
“If we’re getting [most] of our positive cases from special activities, then we’ve gotta shut down special activities and keep school going,” suggested School Board member Dean Aye. 
This comment was met with no response from the room. 
Overall, Hall’s view of the school year is positive, he said in Friday’s phone interview. School has been in session for four weeks and a little more than 1% of the student body has been a positive COVID-19 case. A little over 1% of the more than 1,200 students have tested positive. 
“You know, we’re still learning,” Hall told Howell County News, “I think overall we’ve been doing very well. The cases we get now have fewer kids getting quarantined because of better social distancing.”
Despite other districts moving to hybrid or online-only models, Hall said the plan for Willow Springs R-IV right now is to continue with five days of seated instruction.
by Amanda Mendez, publisher


Howell County News

110 W. Main St.,
Willow Springs, MO 65793

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