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The Moniteau County R-1 School District, after returning to in-seat instruction earlier this month, can look back on a much more fruitful period of virtual learning than its first instance of time away from school buildings last spring.

California schools first pivoted to virtual learning Nov. 9, with instruction remaining remote until Dec. 3 when students returned from the district's Thanksgiving break.

Since then, the district and Moniteau County's active coronavirus case counts have fallen drastically and things have been back on track. Per superintendent Dwight Sanders, there were no positive COVID-19 cases among students and four among staff, as well as 31 members of the district's population quarantined, as of Monday morning.

A return to in-seat instruction has seen at least one higher-profile change in terms of the guidance offered by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention — guidance regarding the amount of time people who are not displaying symptoms must quarantine has been amended from 14 days to 10 days.

For California's schools, days 11-14 of the former full quarantine period still come with extra precautions; students must wear a mask at all times if they wish to return to in-person instruction during that period. Sanders said the district has approached the Moniteau County Health Center about whether a student taking a COVID-19 test resulting in a negative could exempt them from masking full-time and is awaiting a response.

Another change the district has implemented is adjusted schedules to better accommodate social distancing. Sanders said only a few classrooms remain where masking is required due to an inability to adhere to social distancing.

The district is even planning ahead further for such strategic social distancing; the Moniteau County R-1 School District Board of Education at its December meeting approved hiring two new reading teachers at California Middle School for next semester to help consolidate class sizes even further.

"We're working really hard to make sure we have an environment where we just don't have to wear a mask or quarantine students and ultimately have to go into a distance learning approach again," Sanders said.

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During the recent period of virtual learning, Sanders said the district's first attempt in the spring helped teach some important lessons about what would work better this time.

The experience was "considerably streamlined," he said, adjusting the lines of communication from teacher to parent to better consolidate those interactions, and hours of instruction were structured better for students at all three buildings. Elementary students, for example, could expect instruction from 8 a.m.-3 p.m. each day, while middle school and high school students had the advantage of some evening hours if parents needed to reach out to their student's teacher for additional help.

"I would say that we were immensely better prepared going into distance learning this time than in the spring," Sanders said. "We spent opportunities for professional development since the spring, in both the summer and fall, gearing up for the likelihood of a distance learning experience. Our teachers, those especially that knew their skills and technology weren't where they wanted them to be when we were doing distance learning in the spring, really took the opportunity to improve their knowledge base and skillset."

This meant more classwork was being incorporated digitally via Google Classroom prior to the shift to distance learning, helping students make a seamless transition and preventing the need for the take-home packets some families in the district may have seen their students completing earlier this year.

One challenge in this vein, Sanders said, was ensuring all of the district's students had access to the internet in the first place. In preparation for distance learning, the district purchased enough Chromebooks to give one to every student in the district, with California Elementary School students the primary new recipients. Internet hot spots were sent home with any students in the district who didn't have internet access at home.

Sanders said this made for a much more effective classroom structure than the district's first stab at distance learning.

"And I think it gives opportunity for immediate feedback," Sander said. "You know, when you've got a packet and you're sending it home and then you need to give kids time to complete it and bring it back, and there's that delay. This time, we knew if we needed to communicate with a student or a family, we could do that through email."

The district's buildings didn't completely shut down during distance learning, providing another helpful wrinkle. Many teachers across the district met with students who needed additional help in one-on-one or small group settings, and teachers and administrators coordinated home visits with students who were having trouble engaging.

"That was a big benefit to making sure that we didn't have a tremendous amount of learning loss during that time," Sanders said.

In the transition back to in-seat instruction earlier this month, Sanders said the majority of students were engaged — he estimated about 90 percent — but the remaining portion of students needed a bit more intervention to get caught up.

The district's Christmas break began yesterday; Sanders said moving forward, he's hoping that teachers and school staff might end up being included in Missouri's next wave of vaccinations following health care workers and high risk individuals, but the district will continue doing what it needs to until then.

"We're doing our very best," Sanders said. "We continue to, and I feel blessed that we've got a community that supports us in those efforts. We recognize that distance learning time is not something that any of us want, and when you have to do those things, we've got parents and community folks that support us in those decisions we have to make, so we're pretty blessed."

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