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Gov. Mike Parson met Tuesday with Mid-Missouri school district leaders at Capital City High School in Jefferson City, and while the exact details of most of their conversation are not immediately known, it's clear Parson wanted counties to support schools' needs amid the COVID-19 pandemic.
Tuesday's meeting with administrators and staff from the districts of Blair Oaks, Eugene, Russellville, Columbia, Eldon, Fulton, Jefferson City, California, New Bloomfield, School of the Osage, South Callaway, Southern Boone and St. Elizabeth — as well as Jefferson City's Helias Catholic High School — was the first in a series of scheduled meetings this week between Parson and school leaders throughout the state.
"We're just trying to gather up the information, seeing what else we can do — some good suggestions today, some things we might be able to follow up with, to help with the school year," Parson said after the meeting.
Media was not privy to much of the group's conversation Tuesday, but Parson said the discussion included, "How do we make sure those schools have the ability to do contact tracing, that we know that they're going to utilize probably early on? How do you make sure the testing's available? How do you make sure the supplies are there? And more importantly, how do we make sure people are safe?"
Missouri's departments of Health and Senior Services and Elementary and Secondary Education released earlier this month guidance for in-person school reopening for the fall, and schools have been announcing their plans.
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As everywhere else in the U.S., there have been concerns about whether it's safe for schools to fully return, if at all, to in-person learning during the pandemic, especially as cases continue to climb.
Blair Oaks R-2 Superintendent Jim Jones said after Tuesday's meeting, "Are we going to have a COVID case of a student? I'm going to say we probably, quite a bit of certainty, that's going to happen. Are we going to have a faculty or staff member that has the virus? I think we will. We need to make plans to prepare for that."
Blair Oaks has not yet released its reopening plan, but Jones said the district has 4,000 masks, 200 face shields, 1,500 containers of hand sanitizer and other items, and it had been able to have summer school for 400 students in two buildings.
Blair Oaks teacher Jill Verslues was concerned about classrooms not being big enough for social distancing to be feasible. "There is no way that we're going to be able to practice social distancing in the classroom," with 25-30 students, plus teachers and staff.
Parson told Verslues the needs she mentioned — such as obtaining personal protective equipment or plastic for dividing up a space — can be paid for with federal Coronavirus Aid, Relief and Economic Security Act funding counties have received through the state.
Parson said after the meeting that he agreed counties should use money to support schools — not only that they can.
"I think you have to look at what your priorities are at the time. Each county's going to have to look at their priorities, but I would think school would definitely be a priority for any county, making sure we're getting those kids ready to go to school."
He said during the meeting that the ability for a school district to train people within their own system to do contract tracing would be a strength — so as not to be dependent on outside aid.
Jones added Matt Davis, Eldon R-1's superintendent, had also brought up the idea of using the Missouri National Guard to provide substitute teaching services, if necessary.
"The demand for substitutes may become large enough that this concept of utilizing the National Guard or something may be something that the districts all across the state will have to consider moving forward," Jones said.
Parson was next scheduled to meet Tuesday evening with southwest Missouri school leaders in Neosho, followed by Springfield area school districts in Springfield and St. Louis school districts in Jennings on Wednesday, and then Kansas City area school districts in North Kansas City on Thursday.