| Columbia Daily Tribune
Columbia students and parents struggling with online learning offered heartfelt testimony during a Friday hearing of the Joint Committee on Education held at the Columbia Activity and Recreation Center.
In Columbia, elementary students returned to classrooms four days a week on Monday, with Wednesdays for online check-ins. Middle school students and high school students continued with online learning.
The Columbia Board of Education decided Thursday to take a vote Nov. 9 with options of returning middle school and high school students to classrooms four days a week; implementing a hybrid plan, with students in class two days and online two days; or continuing online learning. Return dates in November and December were discussed, but nothing was settled upon.
It’s hard to focus on school online and he can’t practice Spanish in person, said Rylan Wagner, an eighth-grader at Gentry Middle School. Football is the only normal thing in his life now.
“Please do something,” he said. “Please create a plan.”
Online learning got old quick, said Cash Carratura, also a Gentry eighth-grader. It’s emotionally draining, he said.
“I never thought I would say this,” he said. “Please let us come back to school.”
This is no way for students to learn, said Graham McKim, a sixth-grader at John Warner Middle School.
“Us kids are taking a hard hit with virtual learning,” he said.
State Rep. Ingrid Burnett, D-Kansas City, asked Graham what he would like to see happen as a result of the hearing.
“I would just like to see everybody back in school,” he said.
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Emily Smith said her son, in middle school, is struggling with math. He has failed tests, and failed after re-taking tests.
“I’m watching him shut down,” Smith said. “I’m watching him give up. I’m watching him not want to try. It’s creating a sinkhole that’s getting worse.”
Columbia students haven’t received the education they deserve since March, said John Loyd, a student’s father.
“I think they’re planning in bad faith, or they’re just really bad at planning,” Loyd said of the Columbia school board.
Adam Quest has children in Columbia schools and is a teacher in the New Franklin school district, where students are in classrooms.
“The effects of COVID can be permanent,” Quest said. “You know what else can be permanent? Learning to hate school. Anxiety. Suicide.”
Though Sen. Ed Emery, R-Lamar, asked another parent if he would favor vouchers to allow students to attend private schools, Quest said he would not. He’s a strong supporter of public schools, he said.
“I’m not a fan of vouchers,” Quest said.
This type of education isn’t working and isn’t sustainable, said dad Jay Reichard.
A group of parents urging the school board to return all Columbia students to classrooms is CoMo Parents for In-Seat School. The Facebook group has more than 1,000 members.
Columbia Superintendent Peter Stiepleman testified, joined by school board members Helen Wade and Chris Horn. He has an obligation to keep the district’s 19,000 students and 3,000 employees safe, he said.
The district sought information from virologists, infectious disease doctors, pediatricians, the public health director and parents when making its decisions about reopening.
“We listened,” he said. “We heard. We acted. Our decisions have been and will continue to be, evidence-based.”
There’s a heightened degree of sensitivity in classrooms when everyone is wearing a mask, transmission rates are very small, said State Rep. Doug Richey, R-Excelsior Springs.
“You can open and do it safely” as others have, Richey said.
“Our kids are back in elementary and we’re wanting to build on that with middle school and high school,” Stiepleman said.
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Whatever decision the district makes is going to make half the community upset, Wade said.
“We have to live with reality,” said Sen. Cindy O’Laughlin, R-Shelbina, chairwoman of the committee. “It seems like we’re trying to protect for something that has a minuscule chance of happening. At the same time, we have a tremendous chance of failure happening.”
O’Laughlin brought up the dismal interim progress reports in Columbia, showing the number of F grades increasing by 6.5 percent at the middle school level and 53 percent at the high school level in core classes; and 74 percent at the high school and 600 percent at the middle school in non-core classes.
The grades are not final.
O’Laughlin, Emery, Richey and State Sen. Mike Cierpiot, R- Lee’s Summit, weren’t wearing face coverings inside the room, contrary to the city and county health order. They also weren’t seated six feet apart.
“State lawmakers have punted tough pandemic decisions to local leaders,” State Rep. Kip Kendrick, D-Columbia, tweeted after the hearing. “Then they have the audacity to come to Columbia, trash our schools, demean our volunteer school board members, for decisions made in a very difficult situation. Pathetic.”
Scott Clardy, assistant director of the Columbia/Boone County health department, said that the department was not aware that committee members would not wear masks or social distance inside.
“As we are made aware of any future meetings of the state legislature, we will discuss with them the need to abide by our city ordinances,” Clardy said in an email Saturday. “If they don’t want to do that, they will be told to look for someplace else to hold their meeting.”
Kate Canterbury, mother of a Columbia student, said outside the hearing that she didn’t testify because some committee members declined to wear masks.
Her tax dollars were being spent to hold a one-sided hearing that didn’t seek other opinions, she said.
“It was about dressing down the school district,” Canterbury said of the hearing.
While she doesn’t agree with every move the school board has made, she said members have the best interests of students in mind and are doing the best they can.
“The reality is we’re in a pandemic,” Horn said during the meeting, noting the school board has listened and heard parents and many experts on the topic.
“You have 30 seconds to wrap it up,” O’Laughlin said.
Horn said he had been interrupted by committee members each time he picked up the microphone.
“As I look around this room, there’s not many people who look like me,” said Horn, who is Black.
“I fully acknowledge that virtual learning is not working for everybody,” he said.
The situation is a challenge for everyone, said State Education Commissioner Margie Vandeven. It’s the most complex health issue facing the country in 100 years.
“Some students are thriving in this environment,” Vandeven said. “Some are not.”
Some schools have not been able to contact students since March, she said.
“We have up-ended our society all in the name of saving children from a virus they’re not likely to catch,” O’Laughlin said.
As of Friday, 477 of Boone County’s 5,849 total cases recorded were under the age of 18.
According to the Centers for Disease Control, “most children with COVID-19 have mild symptoms or have no symptoms at all. However, some children can get severely ill from COVID-19.”
The CDC is also investigating a rare medical condition that has appeared in children who have contracted the disease called Multisystem Inflammatory Syndrome in Children (MIS-C). MIS-C causes inflammation in different parts of the body, including the heart, lungs, kidneys, brain, skin, eyes, or gastrointestinal organs, according to the CDC.
“We do not yet know what causes MIS-C and who is at increased risk for developing it,” the CDC website reads.