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NEW BLOOMFIELD — The message shared by school leaders at the New Bloomfield R-3 School District Board of Education meeting Thursday night is though the pandemic has come with a myriad of worries and struggles, education has marched on.
"I can say with a kindergartner, learning is absolutely happening and I'm just very thankful for that," board member Angie Robinson-Sullivan said.
Board members heard from Superintendent Sarah Wisdom, middle and high school Principal Paul Cloudwright, elementary Principal Jennifer Fletcher and school staff about student anxieties and virtual learning concerns. The board also again discussed masks, an issue that will be on the agenda again in December.
"Kids are resilient, you know, and they just go with the flow," elementary counselor Siobhanna Mayotte said.
Mayotte said while some students are anxious, they have adapted well to safety precautions.
"This is their normal now," Mayotte said.
Cloudwright noted he too has seen anxiety.
"It manifests, it comes out, in different ways," Cloudwright said. "Everyone is unique and different in how the handle it."
Cloudwright said he has seen more educational neglect, or students not attending school or completing virtual assignments, this year than he has in the rest of his career. He said he's heard similar stories and worse from other regional principals.
"The virtual learning is a great idea in theory," Cloudwright said. "To be frank with you, nationwide, people are struggling. It's going to cause issues not just for us, but everywhere. Everyone is having the same story."
In addition to concerns about health, many families might also be going through tough economic times.
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"Look at the struggling economy, some people are struggling with jobs," Cloudwright said. "Some families are just making less and that is a stressor on top of a stressor on top of a stressor. Kids feel that and feed off that. Next thing you know, they haven't been to school in two months."
New Bloomfield Elementary School principal Jennifer Fletcher praised nurse Kristin Baker for her efforts during the pandemic.
"She spends countless hours on the phone reassuring parents that their kids are going to be okay and we'll get through this," Fletcher said. "And she's reassured teachers that we're going to be okay and I just appreciate that."
Cloudwright said building administration has also been preparing for transitioning virtual students who are struggling with the platform back to in-person learning next semester. To clarify, virtual students are students who chose to learn virtually through an online vendor, not the in-person students who might spend some time learning from home due to temporary closures or individual quarantines.
Preliminary discussions have included talk of Monday Academy and alterations to summer school.
If a virtual student has not met certain academic goals as the semester closes, they will be brought back to in-person school. In addition to expectations laid out from the beginning, the district has sent letters home outlining what each student has completed and what is still left to do, as well as follow-up emails with families.
"This was a concern for us all along with virtual learning," Wisdom said. "It takes a great deal of self-motivation and self-drive to do that. You're taking online classes that are very rigorous."
Virtual students who are behind still have time, but as it currently stands, some are not making progress and will need help catching up.
"We're lucky enough at this point that our number is not so cumbersome that we can still find differentiated solutions for each kid when they come back," Cloudwright said. "Our system is flexible enough and we are capable as a team to get them in the spots that they need to get caught back up."
Cloudwright said some virtual students have been successful.
"Just for the record, we do have a couple of kids that are doing stellar work," Cloudwright said. "We have some kids that are doing phenomenal work right now."
Wisdom said compared to other districts, the challenges facing New Bloomfield are not as bad as they could be.
"We're in a really good place and we have a really good team here, and we're doing really good things, so please don't lose focus on that," Wisdom said. "We were blessed that we've been able to keep out kids in seat as much as we have, because others have not."
In addition to general updates on how the pandemic has impacted the schools, the board also discussed a potential mask mandate. The board decided to table the discussion and bring the decision back up in December.
Some New Bloomfield staff and students have been wearing masks regularly, but others have not. A mask mandate was brought to the board for consideration after changes to state guidelines.
Gov. Mike Parson has said he will not support a statewide mask mandate. But, when it comes to keeping kids in schools, the state has indicated it will allow schools to keep close contacts in the classroom if the school has a mask mandate and both parties were properly wearing masks.
"When we first looked at this as an admin team, we were thinking anything that keeps kids in seat is something we need to look at," Wisdom said.
Wisdom told the board the district looked into the issue and determined that if a mask mandate had already been in place, applying the new guidance might have cut down on 10-20 percent of quarantines. This semester the district has had 52 active cases among staff and students, but only five can be traced back to a possible exposure at school.
"I truly believe there are people on both sides of this and I see both sides of this," Wisdom said. "Our country is divided by this — our community is divided by this."
The state has left the decision on whether to send masked individuals who have come in to contact with someone who has COVID-19 into quarantine to local health departments. As of Thursday evening's meeting, the district had not heard an answer from the Callaway County Health Department on whether it would approve the new guidelines.
Some board members expressed reservations about the enforcement of a mask rule.
"My only reason for ever wanting to do it is to keep kids from having to quarantine — that's the biggest thing," board member Gina Clark said.
After some back and forth on the issue, the board voted to table the issue, unwilling to make a decision without feedback from the health department.
"I believe this is something we have to keep an eye on and we must be nimble and flexible in our thinking when it comes to what happens with masks within our classrooms," Robinson-Sullivan said. "I don't want to see my kindergartner wearing a mask every day to school — I don't want to see it. But if it protects her and it protects others and it protects me at home, then I think we should do it and I just hope that as a body we will continue to keep an eye on the numbers here at school and we will keep those things front-of-mind all the time."
Other board discussions, including on reports from school guidance counselors, will be covered in a second article to be published Saturday.