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Columbia Public Schools, the third-largest district in Missouri using all-virtual learning, will start bringing students back to classrooms next week.

The Columbia Board of Education voted 5-2 Monday to return elementary students to school buildings full time starting Jan. 19 and operate with a hybrid plan that has middle- and high-school students in classrooms two days a week.

The decision comes as the state starts moving to the second step in its vaccination program, with teachers and other essential workers becoming eligible for shots and many local health departments setting up online vaccine registration to identify who is eligible for an inoculation.

"We'll start probably next week starting to define phase 1B and get more details on that," Gov. Mike Parson said Monday during a news conference.

The Columbia district started the year with online-only learning after COVID-19 cases spiked in Boone County after the arrival of University of Missouri students. Elementary students were brought to classrooms for four weeks in late October and early November before the district shifted back to all-online learning.

During the board's debate Monday, the board was urged to bring students back to class by business leaders and urged to keep education virtual by teacher representatives, according to news reports.

The Columbia district, with 18,283 students, is among 49 districts in the state providing only virtual instruction. The largest two that are all-virtual are Rockwood Public Schools, with 20,998 students, and St. Louis Public Schools, with an enrollment of 19,222.

Of the other 508 districts and independent charter schools, 432 have students in class full time, with 226 of that group offering a virtual learning option for parents.

Data compiled by the state Department of Health and Senior Services show that since the end of September, there has been an increase in the share of COVID-19 cases among school-aged children but no district has reported a widespread outbreak from in-person instruction.

For example, children ages 10-14 made up 2.3 percent of all the state's COVID-19 cases at the end of September and 3.3 percent as of Monday.

The department on Tuesday reported 2,131 new infections with the coronavirus that causes COVID-19. Daily tallies of new cases have been as few as 1,196 and as many as 4,729 since the start of the year, and the seven-day average of reported cases stood at 3,075 per day Tuesday.

The department's weekly review of death certificates found 176 COVID-19-related deaths that had not been previously reported, including three from October, 18 from November, 142 from December and 13 since the start of the year.

There have been 427,117 COVID-19 cases and 6,155 deaths tied to the disease since the first cases were reported in March.

The positive rate on coronavirus tests, stubbornly high, has shown some decline. The seven-day average stood at 17.6 percent Tuesday, down 2 percentage points in the past week.

Missouri has vaccinated just over 150,000 people as part of what the state calls Phase 1A of the program, which is for front-line health care workers and residents and staff of long-term care facilities. The next step is Phase 1B for essential workers including child care workers, teachers, and critical manufacturing employees and agricultural workers as well as first responders, people over age 65 and those from 18-64 who have a high risk of severe disease.

Like several other local jurisdictions, the Columbia-Boone County Health Department is setting up registration sites and asking people to be patient while they await their turn. Other locations taking names of people who want to be notified when they are eligible for a shot include St. Louis CountySt. Charles County and Monroe County.

"While many folks want to get their vaccine immediately, we would appreciate your patience and understanding as we work through the phases that have been determined by the state of Missouri," Director Stephanie Browning said in a news release issued last week.

The Missouri Independent is a nonprofit, nonpartisan news organization covering state government and its impact on Missourians.

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