Missouri education leaders update lawmakers on COVID-19 response plans, efforts

JEFFERSON CITY, Mo. – Students, teachers, and families have felt the effect of the pandemic whether it be from remote learning, sending students back to the classroom, or a hybrid of the two.

Missouri education leaders told lawmakers in Jefferson City Thursday it’s been a struggle and it’s going to take time to see the impact COVID-19 has had on students.

“Our kids are not being taught to the same degree, they are not engaging the content like they were,” State Rep. Doug Richey (R- Excelsior Springs) said. “Teachers are frustrated because the kids aren’t logging in.”

It’s been months of uncertainty and concern for the entire education system.

“I mean, I can get involved on my iPad and waste 20 minutes doing something that did not add great value to my day,” State Rep. Brenda Shields (R- St. Joseph) said. “I can’t imagine a middle schooler being at home alone and trying to think about how they are supposed to self-motivate and get connected.”

The Department of Elementary and Secondary Education (DESE) said besides the affect it’s having on students’ education, it’s also taking a toll on the department’s budget.

“So, it will be some time before we see what the total impact of this will be,” Deputy Commissioner of Finance for DESE Kari Monsees said. “We want to continue with our yearly assessments to make sure that we’ve identified what that learning loss might have been.”

DESE explained to lawmakers Thursday why they need $7 million more for this fiscal year.

“I do believe there are additional costs that the districts are incurring because of COVID,” Monsees said. “Some districts that are primarily remote or distanced right now might be seeing some savings in that regard, but that those same districts might be using those buses to deliver meals to students and things to that sort.”

Some lawmakers said DESE is not helping districts enough.

“We can’t afford to sit here and say, well our school leaders are doing the best they can,” Burnett said. “They aren’t getting the kind of help and leadership that they need to do that. DESE is supposed to be the leader.”

Richey said liability needs to be a discussion for schools.

“We need to get our schools and businesses some liability protection so they can actually do things with a little bit more exuberance,” Richey said.

The Department of Higher Education said they are looking at ways to keep enrollment up during this pandemic.

“Longterm conversations in whether the SAT and ACT are the best ways to determine a student’s readiness for college and if there is a fair way,” Commissioner Zora Mulligan said.

Mulligan said the department tracks the websites of colleges and universities closely to watch the data and cases at those institutions.

“That early spike, at least for now, seems to have receded and so most of our schools in the past couple of weeks are seeing significantly fewer cases,” Mulligan said.

Mulligan said they are also trying to put a plan in place to distribute a vaccine when it’s available.

“The federal guidelines prohibit us from giving those vaccines in the first round to students,” Mulligan said. “What we’re talking about with colleges and universities right now is a strategy that would prioritize the faculty and staff that have direct interactions with students: so face-to-face interactions, not sustained basis, who also have comorbidities.”

A topic of discussion for both departments was internet access.

“This kind of money we are talking about seems like there should be somebody on the department level, on the department staff, that is working towards a solution,” Burnett said.

Mulligan said she did not have the fall enrollment numbers for higher education in Missouri, but overall, college enrollment is down about 2.5 percent across the nation. She said they expected that percentage to be higher because of COVID.

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