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Springfield Public Schools return with virtual learning; masking mandate possible for in-person return

Published: Jan. 25, 2022 at 7:17 PM CST
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SPRINGFIELD, Mo. (KY3) - After closing schools for three days because of a COVID-19 spike last week, Springfield Public Schools returned to operation on Tuesday with virtual learning from home.

“Our first day of virtual learning has gone very well in the district,” said SPS Chief Communications Officer Stephen Hall. “The first thing this morning we had more than 900 Zoom interactions with students all across the city and our teachers are doing great work. They went through a day of training yesterday to prepare for a seamless transition to virtual learning that will continue through Friday.”

The decision to close schools and go to virtual learning was not the preferred plan of action for the administration but the arrival of the highly-transmissible Omicron variant in the Ozarks changed the landscape very quickly.

“It was impossible for us to continue to operate as business-as-usual,” Hall said. “We had hoped that if we had to transition to virtual learning that we could do it on a case-by-case basis either at the classroom level or at worst at a building level. But when you have 20 percent of your workforce out the system has to bend. We needed to buy ourselves some time to let our staff get well enough to be able to return to a virtual setting. "

On the Friday before the week where classes were canceled, SPS was missing 20 percent of its staff and 19 percent of its students due to illness.

“Prior to the three weeks we’ve been back from winter break the most cases of COVID we’ve had at SPS would have been around 100 in a week and that only happened a few times,” Hall explained. “But last week we had more than 700 cases reported and the week before that more than 800. Since we’ve returned from winter break on January 4th we’ve had more than 1,800 cases of COVID. That’s far-and-away greater than anything we’ve seen over the 18 months of this pandemic.”

SPS is offering up a lot of resources to help families during the switch to at-home learning including online webinars for parents to better understand the software their kids and grab-and-go meals for students at 16 locations (more info available at SPS’ website (www.sps.org).

The district hopes to return to in-person classes Monday, January 31 but when students come back, they may be under a temporary mask mandate that would run until February 18.

“This is a recommendation of the administration,” Hall said of the mask requirement. “It is a decision that is ultimately up to the board of education.”

The school board will make that monumental decision on Friday and it is monumental because Attorney General Eric Schmitt has already filed lawsuits against 45 school districts that do have mask mandates.

Schmitt has indicated that litigation is in Springfield’s future as well if the district requires masks.

“Springfield public has already acknowledged in our cease-and-desist letter that they shouldn’t have a mask mandate,” said Schmitt during an interview with KY3 last week. “It would be concerning that they knowingly would move forward with a forced masking policy that’s in violation of state law. They’ve already acknowledged that.”

“That is incorrect,” countered Hall. “Springfield Public Schools stands by everything we have done from the beginning of this pandemic.”

Hall sent KY3 the district’s Dec. 10, 2021 response letter to Schmitt after receiving the cease-and-desist letter:

“It is always the desire of Springfield Public Schools to fully comply with the law,” wrote new SPS Superintendent Grenita Lathan. “As you are aware, the Missouri Legislature and Missouri Courts have empowered Missouri public school districts to ensure their students are provided a ‘gratuitous education’ and they have given the districts the ability to control the ‘property and affairs’ of the district, including taking actions to prevent communicable and infectious diseases in the school setting.

Please know the Springfield Public Schools will follow all laws, guidelines, and mandates that apply to public school districts in Missouri. The district is working with its legal counsel to finalize the next steps to ensure compliance with your directive while still fulfilling our obligations under other existing Missouri statutes.”

Hall says the district is more worried about the health of its students than being sued by the attorney general.

“His interpretation is one of many,” Hall said of Schmitt’s opinion of a Cole County court ruling that led to the threats of lawsuits against schools. “I think the clarity will come from the court’s ultimately weighing in.”

The problem is no one knows how long it will take to get those court decisions and until then the idea of a mask mandate will continue to be a polarizing discussion.

“We’ve heard from a lot of folks in Springfield,” Schmitt said. “I think that’s one of the reasons why, in addition to being wrong in the law, Springfield pulled back on its forced masking policy.”

“When you looked at the back-to-school survey two-thirds of the people who weighed in on masking were supportive of the masking requirement,” Hall countered. “But we need people to come together and agree that the one thing we can all agree on is that we want what’s best for our children. They can come to school, learn in person and be well and cared for. That’s what matters. So that’s what I want us as a community to really get back to.”

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