DESE Commissioner talks attendance policy changes and additional funding for Missouri schools

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JEFFERSON CITY, MO. — School days look different from district to district across Missouri as some go to school in person, others are learning online or a hybrid of both.

The Department of Elementary and Secondary Education (DESE) said some teachers are having trouble getting a hold of students who are learning online while other districts are constantly paying for more PPE, making this a school year like non-other.

Commissioner of DESE Margie Vandeven said it’s been an uphill battle for the education system.

“I can’t recall anything similar to what we are going through right now,” Vandeven said. “What we are seeing at the department level, we no longer have employees saying that’s not really my job or I’m not really an expert in that because everyone’s jobs are shifting.”

No matter if you’re a teacher, student or administrator, school looks different this year. During a state Board of Education meeting Tuesday, one board member said attendance for online learning is spotty.

“Some of our Kansas City schools are hovering around 50 percent attendance right now online,” Carol Hallquist said.

“Attendance officers, those teachers who are making calls trying to connect with parents and checking in on kids and in some cases going door to door knocking and trying to find those families and making sure they are enrolled somewhere or getting the assistance that they need,” Vandeven said. “What about those students who are enrolled who are doing full-time online with their teachers, but their teachers aren’t confident they are logging in every day?”

Besides attendance, Vandeven said there’s a constant need for PPE and cleaning supplies.

“The whole cleaning systems are vastly different today so making sure you have enough money for that,” Vandeven said.

Gov. Parson announced Wednesday $61 million of CARES Act funding will go to DESE.

“I’m really happy to say that, that is going directly to our public schools and they will have greater flexibility to use those funds as you said to address the needs of the impact of the coronavirus,” Vandeven said.

Vandeven said this money can be used to pay for masks, cleaning supplies and the digital divide. Some schools might use the money to pay for professional development for teachers to help them understand more about the programs and software for virtual learning.

“So, the technology within the schools they kept up, but this is trying to reach children in homes that’s a challenge, making sure children have devices and, in many cases, hotspots,” Vandeven said.

She said DESE did receive funding allowing districts to be reimbursed for masks.

With Missouri as a local control state, Vandeven said it was up to the local school board and superintendents to make the decision if students return to the classroom.

“While I see that as an advantage, it definitely creates challenges because it would be easy for me to make this global statement and I think in many ways that would be easier, but it’s not always better.”

Vandeven said there’s no one size fits all for the education system but said it’s time for students to be back to in-person learning.

“I believe our kids are better off in classrooms when they’re with their teachers,” Vandeven said. “They are eager to be back in school and our teachers are eager to be back with them. I know it’s a tough decision for parents and I certainly respect and honor the decisions they need to make for their child.”

School districts across the state rely on attendance numbers for funding, but that’s a little tough this year so the Board of Education approved to extend a new attendance policy through the end of the year. This rule allows schools to report attendance for online classes as well as hybrid schedules.

Vandeven also said the state is short substitute teachers and the governor recently waived portions of the state’s statutes so retired school employees are not limited to the number of hours they can work in a substitute position.

“We are hearing there is a great need, and let me be clear, there was a need before COVID but there’s a great need now for substitute teachers,” Vandeven said.

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