State’s top education official visits Springfield on first day of school

Published: Aug. 23, 2021 at 6:59 PM CDT
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SPRINGFIELD, Mo. (KY3) - Monday, August 23 marked the first day of school for the Springfield Public School system and it also brought the state’s top education official to Springfield to present a special award and talk about the challenges ahead with COVID-19.

After the pandemic left schools straddling the fence between virtual and in-person learning in the 2020-21 school year, this new school year has virtually all of Missouri’s schools back to full-time in-person learning.

“We can always teach students better when they’re right in front of us to build those relationships,” said Karyn Christy, the Principal at Wilson’s Creek Intermediate School on Monday as she welcomed around 465 fifth and sixth graders back.

She also welcomed Margie Vendeven, Missouri’s Education Commissioner, and new Springfield Superintendent Grenita Lathan to a special student and staff assembly outdoors in front of the building.

As the students and staff filed in, everyone was wearing a mask which is not something the district had been planning on just a couple of months ago. They were hoping that this fall’s classes would mark a return to a normal learning experience. But that was before the outbreak of the Delta variant put Springfield in the national spotlight, leading school officials to change their plans and make masks mandatory at the start of the school year. Officials will be revisiting that decision and hope to relax the mask rule as soon as the COVID-19 surge in the area subsides.

But just as it has all across the country, the decision to make masks mandatory in schools has become a highly contentious issue.

“We all, including myself, wanted to start the school year without masks,” Lathan said. “But it’s what we must do to keep our students and our staff members safe. People are doing what they need to do so our children can be in school five days a week. And it’s worth it.”

“People disagree on a lot of things right now,” Vendeven added. “But the one thing they seem to agree on is that we need to be back in school in-person. I think we’re going to see some ebb-and-flow through the school year. We understand that. But schools have typically not been superspreaders if the mitigation strategies are put into play. We’ll obviously be watching that closely.”

The special ceremony brought Vendeven to Springfield from Jefferson City so she could personally present a plaque recognizing Wilson’s Creek Intermediate as one of only eight schools in the state to be designated as a Gold Star School.

“It’s a national recognition for one of our top schools in academic performance,” Vendeven said.

Christy said the national designation is an involved process that also looks at other things besides academics.

“We fill out a very lengthy application explaining our school and the strategies that we utilize,” she said. “How we collaborate with the community, how we involve parents and how teachers grow right along with the student.”

As you look around the school you’ll notice a lot of signs on the walls with encouragement and positive affirmations like “Kindness is free, spread that stuff everywhere” and “Be somebody who makes everybody feel like somebody.”

And as you look around you’ll also notice there are still signs of COVID-19 protocols like water fountains turned off in favor of individual water bottles, signs encouraging social distancing and signs at the front door telling you masks are required for entry.

But some things have changed since the schools made major changes last year when the pandemic hit.

“You’re going to see some more normal things taking place,” Christy said of the changes this year. “Students are allowed to be next to each other but we do have students facing in the same direction in most cases. And you will see we do have assemblies and field trips as a celebration of our learning at the end of every quarter.

On Monday, after the Gold Star award, all the students got free ice cream bars for lunch, which resulted in the biggest cheers of the day from youngsters who are still dealing with the pandemic as part of their everyday lives.

Over the weekend the Missouri Department of Health and Senior Services announced that it was partnering with a private company to offer all school districts the option of pooled classroom testing where all the consenting students at a particular school would take the nasal swab COVID-19 test so officials could look at any outbreaks as a whole and then decide if more individual tests were needed.

“If you look at how the virus spreads they talk about the ripple effect,” Vendeven explained. “You gotta stop that ripple effect and the pooling helps us do that. We’re hoping that schools will take advantage of that.”

Springfield schools won’t least for now.

Signing up for the pool testing is not mandatory and the SPS director of health services said on Monday that Springfield Public Schools is not participating in that particular screening program. Instead, they will be continuing to provide free COVID-19 testing for symptomatic individuals.

Chances are though that pool testing for public school students will become another hot-button issue just like masks and vaccines.

“I’m pretty confident people will have mixed emotions on whether or not we should be doing these things,” Vendeven said. “People have strong positions on each side of these mitigation strategies but I’m going to go back to (the fact that) they’re happy to see their kids back in school. We need to do whatever we can to make sure these doors stay open.”

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