Our View

The Joplin School District is running out of time. So are students, parents, teachers and staff who are anxious about the coronavirus and whether our schools will be safe zones.

Classes are scheduled to start Aug. 13, and yet the school board hasn’t been able to reach a decision on what that is going to look like. The district administration on Tuesday presented a plan for reopening, but the Joplin Board of Education failed to approve the plan because its members — by a 3-3 vote, with one absent — were at loggerheads over a proposal to reopen Joplin High School.

Administrators have recommended that JHS students return to school on a split schedule to safely allow for social distancing. Students would essentially be divided into half, and each group would attend in-person classes every other day. On the days in which they’re not at school, they would rely on remote learning and virtual access to their teachers and coursework.

The high school principal said this proposal is necessary because more than 2,300 students will attend JHS this fall, and there’s no way to distance that many people. Social distancing remains one of the top recommendations from health experts to help slow the spread of the new coronavirus, which causes the COVID-19 disease that has killed an estimated 150,000 Americans since spring.

Board members who agreed with the rest of the district’s reopening plan — mask requirements, frequent cleaning, social distancing measures — could not come to a consensus on the JHS proposal. Those who were supportive of it said they want to err on the side of caution and create a safe environment for students; those who were opposed to it said they believe high school students need to be in class five days a week to keep up with their academics.

Board members late Tuesday night were trying to reach some sort of compromise — a plan that would start the high school academic year with students attending in-person classes every other day, and then allowing administrators and the board to reevaluate at a later point in the semester whether to bring them back daily depending on local case numbers.

The district administration and the three board members who voted in favor of its recommendation are on the right path here. We’d all like to see students attend in-person classes five days a week, but considering the serious of the pandemic and the health risks, greater caution is warranted. Let’s not forget the district had two confirmed COVID-19 cases among students in summer school, when the number of students and staff attending was drastically less and social distancing practices were already in observance. And that was when there were far fewer cases of COVID-19 in our community than there are now.

We trust our local school officials — particularly the high school principal, Steve Gilbreth — who are in the building every day and who are telling us that they cannot ensure social distancing with the sheer number of students they have. We trust that they have studied this problem all summer long, that they have reviewed countless scenarios and have come up with what they believe to be the best solution in a difficult situation.

No, a split schedule is not ideal — but nothing about the coronavirus pandemic is ideal. We must adapt to the new normal, and the new normal asks that we social distance from one another to stay safe and healthy. Students should not be forced to go back to school in an environment where social distancing is impossible, and for their safety — and the safety of their teachers and staff as well — the district should proceed with its split schedule idea.

Flexibility will be key for school districts this year, as outbreaks might occur and students might quarantine due to exposure to the virus. Revisiting this plan on a monthly or otherwise regular basis makes sense — because the reality is that the entirety of the school district’s reopening proposal might have to be tightened or loosened based on what’s happening with the virus and infections locally.

School starts in Joplin two weeks from today. The school board will reconvene today, and it must figure out a way to move forward. Students, parents, teachers and staff are counting on it.