Schools across several districts in the Joplin area will close for an extended period in order to slow the spread of COVID-19.

Officials with the Joplin, Carl Junction, Carthage, Diamond, Sarcoxie, Seneca and Webb City school districts announced their schools will close through at least April 3. The announcements came after a meeting with officials from the Joplin Health Department and others.

Officials with each of the districts expect a date for reopening to be aligned among them because they are relying on state education and health experts to make decisions related to the coronavirus. 

"I would anticipate we'd be reopening at about the same time, because we are all getting guidance from (the Missouri Department of Elementary and Secondary Education)," said Melinda Moss, superintendent of the Joplin School District. "If health officials are telling us to close, then we're going to follow that, because our first priority is the safety of our students."

The Neosho School District also extended its suspension of classes through April 3, according to a post on its Facebook page. 

Many of the school districts have been on spring break this week. Each of the districts will make announcements in the future regarding provision of meals, child care and remote-based learning options.

 “We have watched a lot of our neighbors and colleagues across the state about closing,” said Phil Cook, superintendent of the Carl Junction School District. “We wanted to hear what our friends in the health department had to say, and make sure we were on the same page. We want to help play a role in fighting this, and the first step is to close schools.”

The decision is the latest in a number of changes affecting schools across the country. As of Tuesday, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention on its website advised school districts to dismiss school for at least 14 days; that recommendation can change as local situations evolve. The CDC encouraged school districts to also consider canceling large events and extracurricular group activities, continue offering meals, health services and other social services.

The state of Oklahoma on Monday announced closure of all of the state's public schools until at least April 6. The state of Kansas followed suit on Tuesday, with Gov. Laura Kelly announcing classes for the year have been canceled and instruction will move online. 

Missouri has not yet issued a blanket closure of public schools in the state. But Mark Baker, Carthage superintendent, said that the Missouri Department of Elementary and Secondary Education has been in touch with districts about the coronavirus. 

"I think the return date is the unknown, and we can't predict it at this point," Baker said. "Hopefully, something will be told to us by (the state). The April 3 deadline gives us an opportunity to see if that benchmark will change."

Special meeting

After the announcement, the Joplin Board of Education met in a special session to discuss matters related to the coronavirus. 

With 6-0 votes, the board approved separate measures that adjusted the school calendar to reflect the closure and ensure Joplin school employees will continue to be paid throughout the closure. 

The board also approved with a 6-0 vote a resolution that gives the district's administration more flexibility to make decisions related to the coronavirus, including decisions that may go against board policy. 

The resolution calls on board members to be prepared for more meetings in the event of such policy changes, but if a meeting cannot be arranged, the board president may give approval.

"If I ever have a question about something that looks questionable, then I will seek guidance of board members," President Sharrock Dermott said. "A lot of the decisions being made today are national, but we're all trying to develop a common procedure for dealing with something that's new to all of us." 

The resolution does not have a sunset clause, but Dermott expects that issue to be resolved once efforts to contain the virus have succeeded. 

Follow Digital Editor Joe Hadsall on Twitter at @JoeHadsall.

Joe Hadsall is the digital editor for The Joplin Globe. He has been the editor of the former Nixa News-Enterprise and has worked for the Christian County Headliner News and 417 Magazine.

Recommended for you