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story.lead_photo.caption Jason Wise is shown working with eighth grade students during American History class Friday, Jan. 18, 2019, at Blair Oaks Middle School. Photo by Julie Smith / Fulton Sun.

Attendance requirements for Missouri school districts will be loosened for the 2020-21 school year due to the COVID-19 pandemic.

The State Board of Education approved an attendance rule and waived the attendance section of the Missouri School Improvement Program on Tuesday.

The attendance rule allows districts to report only on-site instruction attendance if they are to use a mix of remote and on-site instruction during the 2020-21 school year.

The rule is intended to support three priorities, said Kari Monsees, deputy commissioner of the Department of Elementary and Secondary Education Division of Financial and Administrative Services.

First, it supports public health by allowing for social distancing.

"We are asking districts to suspend attendance incentives that may run contrary to current health orders," Monsees said. An example of attendance incentives would be perfect attendance awards.

Second, it ensures high-quality instruction if necessary interruptions to the typical schedule occur, Monsees said.

And third, DESE will continue funding districts as they provide instruction in various delivery methods. Districts are funded partly based on average daily attendance. There are clear methods for counting in-person and virtual learning options in the statute, but there is not a clear method for how attendance should be counted when students receive a combination of on-site instruction and distance instruction, Monsees said.

A statute passed in 2019, which takes effect for the coming school year, allows for alternative means of instruction. However, that statute is limited to 36 hours of instruction and was intended to be used for snow days or other short-term closures.

The new rule will allow districts to make an addendum to their AMI plans — called an AMI extended or AMI X plan — that will provide a more comprehensive plan if districts switch to a blended schedule of in-person and remote instruction "or have a plan for extended closure if the need arises at some point during the year," Monsees said.

The rule addresses three attendance scenarios that include a mix of on-site and distance instruction.

The first is a blended model where students attend on-site every other day and remote instruction on the alternating day, or students alternate morning and afternoon.

"The primary purpose of such an approach would be to better support physical distancing both at school and while transporting students," Monsees said.

The second scenario is when a school or district is closed in response to COVID-19, which is called intermittent blended instruction.

The third scenario is when a group of students needs to be quarantined due to COVID-19 exposure such as students in the same class or bus. Students may be healthy but cannot physically be present for instruction because of risk of exposure.

There is also a provision that allows districts to submit additional plans for consideration and approval.

"Districts that use a combination of on-site and distance instruction within the context of their AMI X plan will be awarded attendance based on the student attendance rate for the on-site portion of the instruction," Monsees said.

Distance instruction will also count toward the minimum calendar requirements necessary to qualify a district for state aid.

"Regardless of the number of days on-site versus distance, we would use those on-site days as the driver for attendance calculation and apply that same rate to their distance days," Monsees said.

The board also waived the attendance rate performance section of MSIP for the 2020-21 school year, which states 90 percent of students are expected to be in attendance 90 percent of the time.

Attendance is closely related to student success as a measure of school quality and school finance, said Chris Neale, DESE assistant commissioner of the Office of Quality Schools, and that's why it is included in Missouri's school evaluation standards, the Missouri School Improvement Program.

"Regrettably, our current conditions do not point toward that as the most important priority," Neale said. "We've asked schools to examine their policies, not to over-promote attendance, but rather to take care of students and educators to keep everyone healthy."

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