The Joplin School District is proposing to head back to class on Thursday, Aug. 13 — a full week and a half earlier than it was originally set to return for fall classes.

The revised calendar for the 2020-21 academic year, to be considered by the Joplin Board of Education next week, also lists May 13 as the last day of school, moved up from the original last day of May 24. Other aspects of the revised version remain the same as the version originally adopted by the board in December: There would be 170 attendance days in the year, with Christmas break scheduled from Dec. 21 to Jan. 1 and spring break scheduled March 22-26.

District officials said their desire to start school earlier in the fall is due to the coronavirus pandemic, which closed local schools in mid-March and forced instruction online.

Superintendent Melinda Moss said administrators and teachers want to start school earlier to re-engage with their students as soon as possible. Some learning loss is expected over the summer, but that is coupled this year with students missing in-person classes for the entirety of the fourth quarter this spring, she said.

"We're very eager to get our kids back, assess where they are in their learning and proceed," she said.

The district also hopes to be proactive in starting the fall term early in case COVID-19 cases spike again, Moss said.

"If COVID behaves as some people are predicting, the summer might be a time of relative ease, and we can get to school quicker and get more instructional days in front of any potential spike we might see in the fall into the winter," she said. "If that's the case, it gives us some more flexibility if we have to be gone for some days (in the fall) to help flatten the curve."

Joplin was previously set to begin the 2020-21 academic year on Aug. 24 because of a new state law that pushed back the earliest possible start date for public schools to 14 days before the first Monday in September. Under the old law, schools could start earlier if their school boards gave public notice. Most school districts in the Joplin area used that exemption to begin the school year in early to mid-August.

But the Missouri Board of Education voted unanimously earlier this month to relax districts' start dates, as it is authorized to do by state law "if a school district can demonstrate highly unusual and extenuating circumstances justifying such an exemption." The board and state Department of Elementary and Secondary Education said school districts have requested flexibility for the upcoming year as a result of the coronavirus outbreak, which closed school campuses for much of the spring semester.

"The longer kids are away from the classroom and from instruction, the harder it is for them to catch up," Education Commissioner Margie Vandeven said, according to a report from the Jefferson City News-Tribune. "That is particularly clear in our youngest learners and does create concern for us."

The exemption for start dates for the 2020-21 academic year will be granted to school districts that ask for it, with assurances that local input has been considered.

"This emergency rule is necessary due to the novel COVID-19 pandemic and school districts' need for flexibility in their methods to address their students' educational needs," the board said in documentation provided for its May 12 meeting.

Joplin's revised calendar has been approved by the district's calendar committee, which includes teachers, principals and support staff members representing both elementary and secondary schools.

Emily Younker is the managing editor at the Joplin Globe. Contact: eyounker AT joplinglobe DOT com.

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