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This article is free to all readers because it includes information important to public safety and health in our community.

The Moniteau County R-1 School District Board of Education voted Wednesday to pivot to a short period of virtual learning.

California schools will begin remote instruction starting Monday through Dec. 2, a few days after the district's scheduled Thanksgiving break. The first day back in person would be Dec. 3.

As of Wednesday morning, the district had 300 quarantined individuals among students and staff, with 273 being close contacts and about 25 who have tested positive for COVID-19, Superintendent Dwight Sanders said.

Of the quarantined group, about 20 staff members have either tested positive or are close contacts, and the district has several additional staff members who are awaiting test results.

"We feel like that puts us at a pretty critical place, so we at this point are recommending going to virtual instruction," Sanders said.

The Moniteau County Health Center has expressed concern that eight positive cases in the district, specifically, were close contacts that later became positives, raising fears of some spread taking place within schools, Sanders said.

"Honestly, I think we would be naive to think that it's not, to some extent, but they're seeing it as a distinct possibility," Sanders said.

Sanders said a lack of certified staff available to act as instructors serves as another point where in-person instruction has been a struggle recently. Like other nearby schools that have pivoted to virtual learning, California's schools have been forced to staff classrooms with teachers covering for others during their planning time due to a lack of substitutes, or others like non-certified staff are having to step in.

Starting virtual instruction Monday rather than immediately will allow families some time to plan ahead, Sanders said, and the buffer period following the break hopefully will prevent further spread as a result of members of the district population traveling over to the holiday.

The district won't require staff to be in the building when instructing during this time, Sanders said, but they will be able to if they wish. Certified staff such as educators working with students with IEPs may wish to work on site so they can work with students one-on-one if necessary.

"I think we all recognize the burden that anything other than face-to-face puts on our families and what we're giving up when we have to go to a virtual platform," Sanders said. "I guess the thing that I would remind everybody of is that this is a pivot. We aren't looking at this as the way we do business (from here on), it's just that right now we need to pivot and do something a little bit differently to get through this tough time for our staff and for our students. It's not unusual in our current state for districts across the state to be doing exactly what we're doing — the hope is that come Dec. 2, things are looking better and we can be back face-to-face."

Some positives exist now that did not when California's schools were forced to shift to virtual learning earlier this year. For one, teachers have been preparing lessons with the idea that they should be ready at any time for at least two consecutive weeks of virtual instruction since August.

Student morale may also be heightened since there is a deadline for when a return to in-person schooling will take place, rather than the indefinite closure at the end of last school year.

Sanders also noted Apple Bus Company will be willing to work with the district to help coordinate meal deliveries in a similar fashion to last spring, and the district has technology available to help students connect to the internet and work from their homes.

Athletics and other extracurricular events can continue. Practices, games and events like the upcoming California High School musical are set to commence as planned while virtual learning is taking place, with additional precautions in some cases.

The board also discussed spectator expectations at winter extracurricular events.

While no official action will be taken at this time, the board will ask administrators and instructors to encourage social distancing at indoor events, such as the upcoming musical and basketball season, in something of a trial period. For athletic events, this will mean separating home and away fans and limiting tickets for away fans to start. Bleachers will be taped off to encourage social distancing, and similar measures will be taken in the California Performing Arts Center.

Since CHS athletic teams don't have any games scheduled until after the virtual learning period anyway, the middle school teams will shift over to play at the high school gymnasium in the meantime, allowing more space for social distancing.

The school board agreed it will reassess the situation at its regular meeting later this month and decide whether further action should be taken.

As of Wednesday, the only events officially postponed for this semester are the California Elementary School musicals and performances, per CES principal Gary Baker, due to a lack of practice time for participants.

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