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Missouri’s State Board of Education on Monday reviewed its responses to COVID-19, as well as discussed what the next steps may be for the state’s educational system.

At the beginning of the pandemic, the Department of Elementary and Secondary Education applied for and received waivers for districts to continue providing food services, canceled statewide assessments, created a remote teaching and learning resources webpage and put waivers in place for graduation requirements, educator preparation programs and Food and Nutrition Services.

The agency also encouraged leaders to focus on health and well-being of students and staff, provide remote learning opportunities and keep staff employed.

On Thursday, DESE received an application for the $208 million Elementary and Secondary School Emergency Relief Fund through the CARES Act. Ninety percent of the federal funds would go to local education agencies, and 10 percent would be given to DESE to distribute.

DESE is working on ways to prioritize the funding, but they will focus on addressing the digital divide that exists within some school districts, DESE Commissioner Margie Vandeven told the board Monday.

In an effort to understand the scope of gaps in access to technology, DESE surveyed school districts twice, asking what sort of problems the schools were facing and how DESE should prioritize those needs.

About 335 people responded to the first survey, and the top issues were accessibility and teacher training, Vandeven said. The second survey focused on what is prohibiting access to technology and what percent of students do not have access.

So far, DESE received 450 responses out of 550 districts and found lack of affordability is the top issue. About 20 percent of students in these districts are estimated to not have access to internet or a device.

Stabilization funding from the state includes $54.6 million for the Governor’s Emergency Education Relief Fund and $206 million for higher education emergency relief fund.

“We’ll be working closely with our partners at higher education and workforce development and with the governor’s office as they prioritize the distribution of those funds,” Vandeven said.

The board was told DESE will provide school districts guidance on financial issues such as what ADA funding and state formula calculations might look like in the future as well as possible withholdings.

“I know this is a cause for many, many questions that we’re receiving from the field simply because there’s just so much uncertainty around finances right now,” Vandeven said.

Looking ahead

The State Board of Education and DESE officials Monday discussed plans for upcoming programs.

DESE has developed a task force to address summer school, and the task force has given districts the authority to do what’s best for them. However, DESE has created guidance with recommendations on calendar flexibility, expectations for remote and in-person learning and the fall school start date.

The task force said expectations for remote and in-person learning need to meet education guidelines and summer learning programs need to allow for feedback from teachers.

Some schools have already been advised they will likely be doing remote learning and some are hoping to open their buildings for summer school, Vandeven said.

Looking toward the next school year, the board is considering waiving the requirement that schools must start Aug. 24 or later. The board plans to discuss the topic at its May 12 meeting.

Districts have already been seeking guidance on when they can open schools, what social distancing should look like and how can they get students on a school bus while social distancing, Vandeven said. The Missouri School Board Association and Center for Education Safety are working on specific guidance, she said.

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