Joplin High School students will return to in-person classes on a split schedule this fall.

That’s the Thursday decision of the Joplin Board of Education, which approved the plan 4-3 after a heated debate just two days after first rejecting it. Voting in favor were Sharrock Dermott, Lori Musser, Michael Joseph and Debbie Fort; voting against were Brent Jordan, Derek Gander and Jeff Koch.

Under the reopening plan, JHS students will be divided into two groups, with each group alternating attendance days. Students will be expected to use their district-provided computers to access their teachers, coursework and curriculum on days when they’re not physically in class.

Some students, including those attending classes at Franklin Technology Center and those in the special education program, may attend daily.

The split schedule was recommended by administrators, including JHS Principal Steve Gilbreth, to increase students’ and employees’ ability to observe social distancing. The high school is projected to have an enrollment of more than 2,300 students this fall, and Gilbreth said there is no way to ensure social distancing measures with that number.

The board on Tuesday had rejected the district’s reopening plan with a 3-3 vote, with one person absent, because of disagreements over the JHS proposal. Three board members approved of the plan and said they wanted to err on the side of caution, and three disapproved of the plan and said students should be in class on a full-time basis.

While acknowledging that a split schedule is “not the ideal education system,” Dermott, the board president, said Thursday that his vote in support of the proposal was “for the health of our kids.”

“I’m going to be protective of our people,” he said. "There’s more at stake than school. There is, according to the world, a health pandemic, and that has to be somewhere in the equation.”

Gander criticized district administrators for creating a split schedule for the high school despite what he believes is a large percentage of parents who want their students to attend classes five days a week. He said he doesn’t believe there’s an issue with a five-day-a-week schedule for high school students.

“Unfortunately, everybody gets a cold, everybody gets the flu — we don’t live in a zero-risk world,” he said. “These kids have a greater chance dying in a school bus accident than dying from COVID. There is no reason we can’t go to school five days.”

Two members of the public who addressed the board also spoke in favor of a five-day-a-week schedule. Michelle Phillips, a youth pastor in Joplin, said students need a sense of community and normalcy this fall after a spring that was disrupted by pandemic-related school closures.

“They’re going to be exposed (to the virus) whether they’re there five days, three days or two days, if they’re going to be exposed,” she said. "I feel like if our students are going to go back, that they should be able to go five days and not be split up.”

Gilbreth pushed back, saying that the risk of exposure to the virus is too great in a school with more than 2,300 students who don’t have room in the building to maintain social distancing.

“The bottom line is with the number of kids, I cannot guarantee I can social distance kids at the high school,” he said. “In my heart, I take on the responsibility of every child that walks in that school, and I cannot say that I will put your child at risk and sleep at night. In my heart of hearts, I want it to be known that I do not believe I can safely socially distance 2,300 kids.”

Gilbreth said the split schedule keeps intact the high school’s master schedule of 1,400 sections of classes. Bringing all students back daily, if there came a time to do so, could be easily done because that master schedule is still in place, he said.

Superintendent Melinda Moss said the district and school board can easily review whether to bring students back daily or extend the split schedule throughout the course of the semester.

“We have every intention of updating and monitoring and coming to the board and talking about this, and if it needs to be a regular topic for while, then it certainly can be,” she said.

The board also on Thursday, with a 4-3 vote, rejected an amended version of the high school reopening plan that would have ended the split schedule after Sept. 25. Voting against the amended version were Dermott, Musser, Joseph and Fort; voting for it were Koch, who offered it, as well as Jordan and Gander.

The rest of the district’s reopening plan remains the same. Students in kindergarten through eighth grade will attend in-person classes five days a week, and a variety of mask, social distancing, cleaning and screening requirements will be in effect for all K-12 students as well as teachers and staff.

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