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The impact of the coronavirus pandemic on education in Missouri was the main topic of this week’s Missouri Board of Education (BOE) meeting.
The key action the BOE took was to give districts across the state more flexibility when it came to school year start times and the number of hours required for summer school offerings.
The BOE gave the Department of Elementry and Secondary Education (DESE) the ability to offer waivers to a new state law that tied school year start dates to the Labor Day holiday. Under the new guidance, DESE can offer waivers to individual districts for the 2020-21 school and allow for earlier start dates if the districts prove to DESE that they have held a public hearing on their plans, show how a modified start date will benefit students and their learning, and provide plans on how the exemption will minimize the transmission of COVID-19.
The BOE also heard updates from DESE staff on how federal CARES Act funding should be used, with a focus on the need to share that funding in part with non-public schools.
“The purpose of these grants is to respond to the crisis,” said Assitant Commissioner Chris Neal. “There’s a list of 12 allowable uses of this money.”
He pointed out that while guidance on how the funds should be used relied on Title 1 funding language, the CARES Act funding was not limited only to disadvantaged students like Title 1 funds are. He added that school districts and charter schools must make sure that they were using CARES Act funding to provide equitable services for non-public schools.
“You must serve non-public schools with an equitable share of services,” said Neal. “In Missouri, we have a blame amendment just like many states and the money cannot be transmitted to a non-public. So the public can provide services the public can provide can purchase technology and check it out to the non-public but the money can’t be spent there.”
Neal said that ensure that non-public schools received equitable services, DESE would be limiting dispersal of CARES Act funds to school districts until they had made sure they knew how much needed to be spent to support non-public schools in their district.
“The intent of the law was that any non-public that chose to participate should be allowed to,” said Neal. “So we have engineered a component where an LEA will apply, they will receive 75% of their allocation when the application is complete. Then they must advertise so that any non-public, even if they’ve not been registered, can raise their hand and say yes we’d like to participate. When they’ve consulted and shown how they will fulfill the requirements of the law on how to have equitable services then we can send the last 25 %.”
Neal said major focuses of how the funds would be spent would include purchasing equipment to facilitate distance learning, professional development to help teachers learn how to teach remotely, cleaning and sanitation efforts in schools, and efforts to eliminate the digital divide.
“One in five of our children are not receiving educational services right now,” said Commissioner of Education Margie Vandeven. “Who’s gonna who’s going to tolerate one in five kids not receiving an appropriate educational opportunity right now.”
That shocking revelation led the BOE to talk about how to solve the state’s digital divide, but unfortunately, the board did not come up with many successful answers.
“It’s an urban, suburban, and rural issue,” said Department of Economic Development Director of Broadband Development Tim Arbeiter.
He said that while conventional wisdom suggested that the digital divide came from rural areas without physical access to broadband services, the reality was that it was more of an affordability issue across the state.
“A lot of students may have access into their house, it’s just they can’t afford to $50 a month to keep it going,” agreed Office of Data System Management Chief Data Officer Jeff Falter. “It’s not just regional but statewide that we have this issue.”
Falter said that possible solutions would be to push wi-fi outside fo school buildings, to partner with businesses to create wi-fi hotspots in communities or to send wi-fi hotspots home with students, but noted that current funding would do little to change the situation for the close to 200,000 students who cannot access the internet at home currently.
“I think that we have an opportunity here to take advantage of a season of change.”
That was the message State Board of Education member Peter Herschend had for how the state education system should respond to the coronavirus pandemic.
Herschend argued that it was time for a major change in the way that education is delivered, suggesting that focusing on competency-based learning and early childhood education were just two examples of how the state could completely rethink its educational system.
“Rather than just requiring set hours of seat time we should be looking at education from the perspective of saying, how is the child, how is the student doing?” he said. “Regardless of how many hours he or she was sitting at her other desk, and if they’re doing really well, then for heaven’s sakes move them along. We don’t say that today. The fact is that all fifth graders on reading are judged as a class. We ought to somehow break that down and say it’s much much more important that we’re recognizing the attainment of an individual student.”
Herschend pointed out that such dramatic change would likely meet resistance, but that it was imperative that the state use the current crisis to make needed changes.
This is the time we have to be making those decisions to take advantage of a season of change,” he said, “so that our kids can get a better education tomorrow than they are today. If we don’t take advantage this season of change, 10 years from now, 20 years from now, we’ll still be educating kids on the number of seat hours they had and how many days of education they had and how are the fifth-grade kids doing instead of how are our individual students doing?”
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