De Soto school board

Chris Woelich, a science teacher at De Soto High School, makes a point about how teachers and other staff members are responding to challenges presented by COVID-19 at a school board meeting Sept. 17.

Students in the De Soto School District will have instruction four days a week rather than five starting Oct. 5.

Under the district’s current re-entry policy, students either attend in-person classes five days a week or received instruction through the district’s virtual learning program, which has them learning online at home, five days a week.

With the change, no in-person classes will be held on Monday and no teacher-led virtual instruction will be held on Mondays. However, Monday will not be a day off for students, officials said.

Teachers will post assignments for all the district’s students, whether they’re attending in-person classes or strictly online classes, to work on, and teachers will be available to speak with students individually.

The Board of Education voted 6-0 at a special meeting Tuesday (Sept. 22) to modify the district’s COVID-19 re-entry policy and calendar. Board member Mark Farrell was absent.

The district plans to follow the modified plan with four days of instruction through the first semester, which ends Jan. 15.

Superintendent Josh Isaacson said the board could decide whether to continue the policy into the second semester later, based on data at that time.

The changes came after several teachers and principals spoke at the school board’s Sept. 17 regular meeting, warning that the staff was struggling keeping up with the demands of combining in-classroom teaching and virtual learning.

Isaacson said as of Tuesday, about 25 percent of the student population was taking virtual classes.

He said 251 students had been ordered to quarantine and that 10 had tested positive for COVID-19.

“Our re-entry plan was successful in that we were able to start school again, but we are finding that it is not sustainable,” Isaacson said. “Changes need to be made.”

He said staffing has been a problem from the get-go.

“We have had six staff members test positive, and today (Sept. 23) we had 19 quarantined because of COVID-19,” Isaacson said. “That’s not just teachers, but those are duties that need to be covered. That doesn’t include people being out for other illnesses, personal leave, bereavement leave or any of the other things that come up every year.”

Isaacson said in addition to finding quality substitute teachers, maintenance workers have had to help with some custodial duties, and vehicle mechanics are driving school bus routes.

“Our staff has always worked to cover when we had a shortage of subs,” he said, “but these occurrences were never daily. Most of these absences are outside the control of individuals, and they’ve been caused by COVID-19.”

Isaacson said on Tuesday afternoon, he was considering sending a message to all district buildings instructing teachers to send Chromebooks home with students in case classes would have to be called off.

“That’s how close we are with this,” he said.

Not having classes on Monday, he said, would allow teachers an opportunity to plan lessons for both in-person and virtual platforms more effectively, catch up with grading, allow maintenance of buses and further deep clean buildings.

“We would only have to try to cover eight days with sufficient staffing rather than 10 (over a two-week period),” he said.

Isaacson said he understands some parents will be resistant to the change.

“We need to be ready for negative and mixed responses from the community,” Isaacson said. “We understand this is going to pose a hardship for some parents, particularly with childcare. But we are teetering on not having enough staff each day to maintain school operations. We believe this is preferable to what’s more likely – short-term, last-minute closures because of the lack of staff.

“We’re going to have to try to get through the rest of this week and next week, but we didn’t want to start this any sooner to let families have a chance to plan for this,” Isaacson said.

The district received approval from the Missouri Department of Elementary and Secondary Education to change its schedule.

The only Monday in the first semester when students are scheduled to receive teacher-led instruction is Nov. 23, because the district had scheduled only two school days that week because of the Thanksgiving break.

In addition, a scheduled day off for students on Friday, Oct. 23, has been shifted to Monday, Oct. 26. The day marks the end of the first semester and gives teachers an opportunity to submit final grades and attend professional development seminars.

Isaacson said with the change, the Festus R-6 School District will be the only Jefferson County public school district to offer a model in which students attend class either in person or virtually five days a week.