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Gov. Mike Parson said Wednesday the next two weeks are critical for determining what the immediate future looks like for the state in terms of how open things can be amid the COVID-19 pandemic.
Parson said, "Decisions will be made in the near future of how Missouri moves forward, according to what those next two weeks look like."
He added he would today address Missouri's stay-at-home order, which is currently set to expire at 11:59 p.m. April 24. He said the decision would be made "after a number of conversations with local elected officials and other governors."
"We will also be looking at a plan to reopen Missouri. That said, I want to assure everyone that public health remains our number one priority. As governor, I have no greater responsibility than protecting the health and safety of all Missourians," Parson said.
As of Wednesday afternoon, there were 4,895 reported cases of COVID-19 in the state, with 147 deaths from the disease.
Because of the pandemic, Parson ordered Missouri public and charter schools to remain closed April 9 through the end of the academic year, though remote learning is to continue through the last day of the year that was previously scheduled by a local school board.
Catholic, Lutheran and other parochial schools chose to follow suit after Parson's announcement.
The Missouri State High School Activities Association also canceled all remaining postseason events for the remainder of the school year, including sports, music activities, scholar bowl, speech and debate, and theater.
What returning to school looks like and when, after the end of the current academic year, is still anyone's guess, but Commissioner of Education Margie Vandeven said Wednesday a state task force is working to determine what options there may be for summer school programs.
Vandeven added the Missouri Center of Education Safety, which is under the Missouri School Boards' Association, is looking at what students' re-entry to school may look like and will make some recommendations, but there's nothing specific yet.
This week, the state began to receive confirmation from the federal government of exactly how much emergency pandemic funding aid it will receive from the Coronavirus Aid, Relief and Economic Security Act, or CARES Act, including $208 million for K-12 schools, and a further $54.6 million that can be used for K-12 schools, colleges, universities or other institutions.
Vandeven said the funds will help schools address the "digital divide" — inequitable access to internet and computers, especially in rural and urban areas — "as well as to address the remote teaching and learning challenges and lost learning time experienced throughout the state."
She said the funds will be distributed through federal Title I allocations, "which means that the funding will be sent first to those schools working to meet the unique needs of those who have traditionally been most disadvantaged."
Title I refers to federal education standards that fund school services for students in low-income families.
Vandeven added the state last week applied for and received approval for a federal waiver, authorized under the CARES Act, "that gives Missouri schools unprecedented flexibility in using the federal Title dollars they already have to best meet the needs of the students and education during COVID-19."
That means schools will be able to re-purpose some federal funding for "technology infrastructure and teacher training on distance learning, and to move resources to the areas of highest need during this national emergency," she said.
As for what families and schools can do in the coming months, ahead of whatever return to normal or a new normal there may be for schools, Vandeven said, "this is a wonderful opportunity for kids just to explore and to learn about things that they like."
"We'll be studying and focusing really on literacy," she said, "so, make sure there's materials in your homes. Ask your children questions. We're most concerned probably about our youngest learners. Make everything a learning opportunity" from reading meal recipe instructions and playing with the math involved. "Do anything that you can to help children see the learning opportunities ahead," she said.
Vandeven added stability is important for children, "a little bit of structure" that helps children understand the current emergency will pass.
More resources and age-appropriate learning guidance are available on the website for the state's Department of Elementary and Secondary Education, she said — dese.mo.gov/.
For those without access to the internet, there may be educational opportunities through local TV channels that cities and school leaders are working to provide, Vandeven added.