Joplin High School students will return to in-person class on a full-time basis next month.

The Joplin Board of Education on Tuesday night unanimously approved the reentry plan, which will implement a staggered schedule for high school students to return to traditional in-person classes over the course of the next month.

Under the schedule, the freshman class will return to the high school full time on Monday, March 1. The sophomore class will follow on Monday, March 8; the junior class on Monday, March 15; and the senior class on Monday, March 29, after spring break.

Since the start of the academic year in August, Joplin High School students have been on a split schedule wherein approximately half of the student body attends in-person classes on any given day while the remaining half relies on remote learning.

But COVID-19 case numbers have been trending downward in both the school district and the Joplin community, administrators said, leading them to reassess the schedule.

"My first thing in the world is to educate our kids, but before we can do that, I know we need to keep them safe, and in my heart of hearts I believe we can do this," Principal Steve Gilbreth said. "It's not a knee-jerk reaction. There's real data behind why this is prudent."

The data show that as of Tuesday afternoon, zero high school faculty and staff were in isolation for COVID-19, and four students were considered active cases, Superintendent Melinda Moss said. That puts the current positivity rate for the high school at 0.2%, and 0.13% districtwide — "the lowest we've been all year," she said.

There were 42 active cases in the city of Joplin on Tuesday and 69 in Jasper County, Moss said. Both counts are down from highs over the winter.

Gilbreth said the high school will continue to mandate the wearing of masks or face coverings when social distancing cannot be maintained, such as at lunch or during passing periods. Desks and tables will continue to be cleaned between classes and disinfected at the end of every day, he said.

As for faculty and staff, the school district is trying to vaccinate those who are eligible under Missouri's prioritization plan, which currently includes individuals 65 and older and adults with some additional health issues, Moss said. The district won't mandate vaccines but is trying to make them available through cooperation with local health departments to eligible teachers who want them, she said.

The staggered return schedule for students was recommended to give administrators time between each week to monitor the school population for spikes in COVID-19 cases. If a spike were to occur, how the school would handle it would depend on how severe it is, Gilbreth said.

Administrators said the schedule bringing back the freshman class first and ending with the senior class was intentional.

"There are people who have voiced their desire to have the seniors come back first because they have the least opportunity to catch up this time away from school because we're going to be losing them soon (through graduation)," board President Sharrock Dermott said. "I think the reason we're bringing the freshmen back first is because we think they're perhaps the least mature of our group and are probably in the greatest need of everyday class, without being disparaging to any child in the district."

Students will remain on the split schedule, attending in-person classes every other day, until their class returns to school full time, Gilbreth said. Students who are enrolled in the district's virtual education program will remain so for the remainder of the academic year.

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