The Missouri Board of Education has granted school districts flexibility for deciding when classes may resume for the 2020-2021 academic year.

Members of the state board voted 7-0 May 12 to allow school districts to apply for waivers if they want to start the upcoming school year before Aug. 24.

In July 2019, Gov. Mike Parson signed a bill that said public schools could not open earlier than 14 days before the first Monday in September. However, because of the COVID-19 pandemic, which forced public schools across the state to close buildings in March to limit the spread of the disease, the state board decided to allow districts to start earlier this fall if they want to.

“I appreciate the state board offering us support in the flexibility of school start date,” said Nisha Patel, superintendent of the Fox C-6 School District, which is scheduled begin the 2020-2021 academic year on Aug. 26.

“At this time, Fox has not made a decision on the earlier start date. We will need to look at this from a variety of perspectives and the implication of such a decision. We will continue to monitor the COVID-19 situation and have conversations around this. Our main goal is to minimize gaps in student learning and that will help guide our continued conversations.”

While school buildings closed in March, students continued their education through alternative methods, mainly through online classes.

“We will discuss (starting earlier) with our school board and make a determination from there,” said Armand Spurgin, superintendent f the Sunrise R-1 School District, which is scheduled to open Aug. 25. “I suspect we will make a decision on the calendar in June, whether we will move it up or not. I see some benefits of being able to start a little earlier to get kids back in here and get started. We will have some remediation.”

Other Jefferson County school districts scheduled to open on Aug. 24 include Festus R-6, Jefferson R-7 and Windsor C-1. Districts planning to open Aug. 25 include Crystal City and Grandview R-2, which both will have four-day school weeks during the 2020-2021 school year. Districts set to start Aug. 26 include De Soto, Dunklin R-5, Hillsboro R-3 and Northwest R-1.

Festus spokesman Kevin Pope said the district plans to start the next school year on Aug. 24 as planned, contingent on guidance it receives from the Jefferson County Health Department.

Northwest Superintendent Desi Kirchhofer said his district does not anticipate starting earlier than Aug. 26, although those plans could change.

“We will make the best decisions we can at the time with the best information we have,” said Kirchhofer, who also is the president of the Jefferson County Superintendents Association.

Districts need to get local input before deciding to start prior to Aug. 24 to ensure an earlier start date is beneficial to students, according to the exemption the state board approved.

At a minimum, states will need to provide widespread testing and tracing of the virus before classrooms may reopen, federal health officials said in a recent Senate committee hearing.

“(The waiver) provides flexibility, if the situation changes, so people can decide to jump start the school year a little bit to try and make up for lost learning,” Kirchhofer said. “I think all along, even prior to the vote, the concern about the law was the lack of flexibility when schools needed it. I appreciate the opportunity to have the flexibility.

“Who knows if anybody will have the opportunity to take advantage of that or not. There is still a lot of planning to be done just for the general start of the school year.”

Rockwood School District Superintendent Mark Miles said his district is still planning to start the 2020-2021 school year on Aug. 24. However, he said that could change.

“The later start date allows for additional planning time and more information as we approach the hopeful opening of our schools in the fall,” said Miles, whose district includes Eureka High School, LaSalle Springs Middle School and Blevins, Eureka and Geggie elementary schools.

“The focus is on academic re-entry, allowing our students and staff to get involved in a regular routine, and certainly, the earlier the better there. As long as it is a safe environment, we will continue to have conversations in our planning teams throughout the summer.”