As of Thursday this past week, all 555 school districts and charter schools in the state of Missouri had reported that they will be closed for varying lengths of time.
In Southwest Missouri, the closure for many school districts — including Joplin — will last at least through April 3. It’s an attempt, superintendents say, to help combat the spread of the new coronavirus, which can cause a disease called COVID-19.
But up until Saturday, there had been no mandate from state leadership that schools do anything, and that concerned us. Even as of Friday, the Missouri Department of Elementary and Secondary Education was listing school district closures that had been reported to state officials, not the other way around.
Gov. Mike Parson early last week defended his decision not to mandate school closures, telling media at a news conference that local officials were best suited to make decisions on whether to close.
“We felt like the local levels, elected officials there, would know best how to do their schools,” he said on Tuesday, according to a report from the St. Louis Post-Dispatch.
That rings hollow to us. The state has never before had a problem interfering in issues of local control. Take, for example, a new state law that pushes back the earliest possible start date for public schools to 14 days before the first Monday in September. Despite overwhelming opposition from school boards and educators who wanted to maintain local control of when their individual districts started school, the state pushed forward with its one-size-fits-all start date for every school district in Missouri.
Our neighboring states — Kansas, Oklahoma and Arkansas — all mandated the closure of schools in a much timelier manner than did Missouri. In Oklahoma, it’s through at least the beginning of April; in Kansas, the closure will last for the remainder of the academic year. Arkansas’s governor late last week announced an extension of the statewide closures until April 17 after recognizing that community spread of the virus was beginning to occur.
Finally, on Saturday afternoon, Parson issued an executive order for Missouri that, among other things, mandates the closure of schools until April 6. Better late than never.
Leaders in these states, now including Missouri, have made the right call. And to be clear, we also appreciate our local superintendents who opted on their own to close their schools. They are sending the message that the public’s health and safety matter.