Missouri is a state that has earned a “red zone” warning from the White House for reporting 79% more COVID-19 cases over the past two weeks.

It is also a state where, as of Friday, seven counties reported less than 10 total cases each.

Gov. Mike Parson pointed out the gap between those dense urban and sparse rural areas as the main reason for the state’s direction for reopening schools in the midst of the pandemic. Instead of a standardized, step-by-step plan, the Missouri Department of Elementary and Secondary Education has released guidelines based on input from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and other health officials that school districts can use to formulate their own plans.

“The school districts are so diverse,” Parson said. “What happens in St. Louis or Kansas City may not have an effect here,” he said during a meeting Tuesday with area school district officials.

School districts across the region, including Joplin, Carthage, Neosho, Carl Junction and Webb City, last week announced their reopening plans for the upcoming school year. Those plans have many of the same disease prevention concepts: They require varying degrees of social distancing, the wearing of masks and cleaning, and they incorporate aspects of virtual learning to limit in-person classes.

Superintendents from many of those same districts took the opportunity this past Tuesday to tell Parson that they appreciated the state’s do-it-yourself approach.

“Directives from Jefferson City, those types of policies are broad and sweeping, not customized for us,” said Tony Rosetti, superintendent of the Webb City School District.

Parson toured Missouri school districts in several sessions last week, catching up with administrators about specifics of their reopening plans. The first part of Tuesday’s meeting, which was not open to the public, featured superintendents reviewing a summary of their plans, Rosetti said.

Parson said the first part of the meeting was closed to give those administrators a chance to speak freely about their districts.

When the meeting was opened up, Parson updated them about the possibility of more federal funding sources, the possibility of taking on contact tracing and keeping up communication about the disease, especially in light of the imminent arrival of other illnesses. “Flu season will be here soon, and a lot of people won’t know the difference between them,” Parson said of COVID-19 and the seasonal flu.

Teacher emphasis

A key portion of the CDC’s guidance over reopening schools deals with the protection of teachers, who may be more at risk than students.

Statewide, teachers worry about a lack of specificity in local plans and having to pay out of pocket for personal protective equipment, according to a survey from the Missouri National Education Association. Key findings from that survey, released by the MNEA on Friday, include:

• 78.6% of educators said schools shouldn’t rush to meet an arbitrary reopening deadline.

• 72.1% believe their districts have the resources for effective virtual learning through remote instruction.

• 4.8% strongly believe that their district will provide all necessary PPE.

The survey also cited that while 77.8% of educators think they should have a role in determining how a reopening plan looks, only 1.6% agree with the statement “There is a clear plan and the physical space to ensure adequate social distancing,” and only 3.7% say their school has clear safety protocols.

Teachers played a part in plans determined by the region’s school districts. Rosetti said that Webb City used surveys of teachers for its plan — a general one at the beginning, then a separate one asking about more specific details.

Jim Cummins, superintendent of the Neosho School District, said that survey responses from 450 staff members was used to develop its plan, and that teacher representatives from each building were part of the development team.

Lori Musser, a Joplin Board of Education member, said representatives of the district’s teacher and staff groups were part of several meetings about Joplin’s plan and were given several chances to keep their members updated about progress.

Both Cummins and Rosetti noted that opinions and responses from teachers were just as varied as a survey of the general public — especially when it came to the polarizing subject of wearing masks.

“We saw more varied opinions from teachers in the survey than we did in the meetings,” Cummins said. “Most of the ones in the meeting were more pro-mask, but in the surveys we definitely saw the opinions of those who don’t think those are a big deal.”

Musser said that mask-wearing was important to Joplin teachers, who also exhibited a range of concerns about the spread of the disease.

“Some are ready to get back and get things going again,” Musser said. “Others have an understandable fear of being in the classroom, not so much at the younger grades, but more middle and high school. Mainly, they were concerned about the wearing of face masks and the difficulty we’ll have with social distancing.”

The reopening of schools has been an issue pressed by the White House at a federal level, citing economic benefits and how schools benefit childrens’ well-being.

Parson, a Republican, has mirrored President Donald Trump’s assertion that students need to return to school, saying that we have learned how to fight the spread of COVID-19 over the past few months.

“We’re not defenseless against COVID,” Parson said. “We’ve been addressing it in nursing homes, veterans homes, food processing plants and other places. We know how to do a box-in strategy, and we’ve seen that in areas across the state already.”

Plan differences

When developing reopening plans, school districts had to find a middle ground between addressing national talking points and specific local concerns.

“Our plan wasn’t based on anything political,” Rosetti said. “I felt we created a plan that was independent of what was happening at the federal and state levels. That doesn’t mean we don’t know what’s going on, but we’re not addressing anything other than the safety of our kids.”

The process of establishing plans did not go smoothly for each district, however, and highlighted how each district is addressing its own needs.

Officials from Joplin were not at Tuesday’s meeting with the governor. That district’s Board of Education tried on Tuesday to approve its reopening plan but could not after a long session.

Joplin’s plan was approved later in the week with a 4-3 vote splitting up the high school into two groups with alternating attendance days. During off days, students are expected to keep up with classes using computers and online resources.

The reason for the split-attendance plan was because the building could not allow for social distancing with an incoming enrollment of 2,300, said Principal Stephen Gilbreth.

Split attendance is a plan B in Webb City’s plan. The district intends to have students at school five days a week, but can shift to a split-attendance system if necessary.

Neosho, Carl Junction and Carthage will also offer five-day instruction with virtual learning options. In Carl Junction, parents can choose options to blend in-person and online instruction with certain limitations.

Federal funding is helping those districts pay for the increased cleaning and protective supplies. In Neosoh, for example, Cummins praised the Newton County Commission and other agencies for a number of upgrades, from telemedicine stations with Freeman Health System at school buildings to a bulk purchase on ultraviolet cleaning lights.

Parson said the federal government may authorize another round of money for schools to use for those supplies and to fund contact tracing efforts.

While the onset of the pandemic in March caused issues that had districts wondering what to do, a state directive to make decisions locally for the upcoming school year has been appreciated by school leaders in Southwest Missouri

“When we were one of the first schools to have to cancel in the spring, it would have been nice to have a directive from the state, yes,” Cummins said. “But at the end of the day, if the state said that all schools have to start back on the same day in the same way, we would have been frustrated. Our patrons expect us to be back, but that might not be the same in Columbia or St. Louis.”

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.