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story.lead_photo.caption New Bloomfield R-3 School District Board of Education members Josh Woods, standing left, Gina Clark, right, and Angie Robinson Sullivan were sworn in Tuesday, June 16, 2020. Photo by Olivia Garrett / Fulton Sun.

When it comes to returning to school next fall, the New Bloomfield R-3 School District is playing it by ear.

"It changes daily," Superintendent Sarah Wisdom said. "You know, just think back to last week, we were under Phase One, and now we're in Phase Two. It changes all the time."

The district's goal is for all students to return to in-person classes in the fall.

"Just to have a set plan right now, I think it's premature," Wisdom said. "I will say that our number one goal and our hope right now is to have kids here."

If that is not possible, the district has discussed keeping high school students learning online and elementary students in person. This plan would allow elementary students to spread out across campus while still getting face-to-face contact with teachers.

"We feel strongly those elementary kids that are learning how to read, they need that face-to-face," Wisdom said. "You need to be able to see them. In high school and middle school, we are also preparing them for college, which is a lot of online."

Another challenge is transportation.

"We can put hand sanitizer in, we can social distance in the classroom and we can do all this, but how do you get kids to school in a school bus while social distancing?" Wisdom said.

Wisdom said the district is hoping for more guidance from the government. Under a scenario where students would have to be spaced out one child per seat, every other seat, only 24 students would fit in a bus.

Currently, school buses will pick up any student in the district, even if they live close to school.

"I think that the prior superintendent's and my thought was, if our buses are passing those houses, why would we not stop and pick those guys up? But now it's a little different," Wisdom said.

The fear is that if distance regulations are put in place, it won't be feasible for the district to pick up everyone.

"People want to know and they want to plan, and I completely understand that," Wisdom said. "I just feel strongly that I don't want to put information out there and then you plan as a parent and then we have to change it. I want to make sure we are making the right decisions."

These are some of the issues the district's COVID-19 task force will discuss. Board members Amy Pendleton and Terri Sweeten will join the task force. Angie Robinson Sullivan also expressed interest if Sweeten ends up unable to attend meetings.

The pandemic brought to light opportunities to improve distance learning and internet access, Wisdom said.

"I think we did a really great job and our teachers did a really great job at distance learning, but now's the time to make that better," she said.

The district is considering buying portable hotspots that can be sent home with students who don't have internet access at home. Because the devices work off existing networks, there are concerns they wouldn't help students who live in dead areas in the countryside.

"It's still better than what was happening during the shutdown because they were having to come here and people were complaining about having to come here and be stuck in the car with three kids," Clark said.

Teachers are looking at strategies for blended classrooms, with technology integrated into the learning experience even when students are on campus.

"We have to start incorporating that into our learning so that if this happens again — or, I'm being told, when this happens again — we're more prepared," Wisdom said.

The district has purchased supplies like face masks and shields for nurses, disinfectant sprayers, and hand sanitizer. Staff are also installing hand sanitizer dispensers in classrooms and in common areas of the schools.

"I feel pretty good with what we have," Wisdom said.

Callaway County is currently deciding how to distribute funds from the federal government through the Coronavirus Aid, Relief and Economic Security Act. Wisdom told the board the county is considering purchasing cameras that can scan crowds and record temperatures for local school districts.

The technology would help school officials see if any students are sick, whether it be with the flu or COVID-19.

"We've always hit home attendance, attendance, attendance; and that is super important when it comes to educating kids — but it's also super important that if a kid is sick that they're not here," Wisdom said. "I can't tell you how many kids puke on the bus."

This debate — between attendance and keeping sick students home — is one being had across the country and at the state level. In Missouri, school funding is based on attendance counts.

"It's an unknown. If the children aren't here because of COVID, what is our attendance? How do we get paid?" Sweeten said.

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