NORMANDY, Mo. — The Omicron variant has crippled school districts across the region and many have moved to remote learning. Some even had to close due to staffing shortages as teachers were out due to COVID-related reasons.
But a 2019 Missouri law aimed at keeping kids in the classroom prevents districts from going remote for too long.
On Friday, the Normandy school district, known as the Normandy Schools Collaborative, made a difficult decision that will cost them.
The Normandy Schools Collaborative, like most districts, made it clear this year, students should be in the classroom.
Especially after the jolt into virtual learning on many families and students the year before.
"We've learned virtual education and distance learning opportunities just don't work for all of our students," said Mallory McGowin, a spokeswoman for the Missouri Department of Elementary and Secondary Education.
However, fast forward to now, the country faces a new variant.
"Omicron came and has really hit our staff pretty hard," said Phil Pusateri, the Normandy associate superintendent and chief financial officer.
At Lucas Crossing, the district's largest school, 30% or more teachers were out of the building last week.
The school pivoted to remote learning for the nearly 700 students when those staffing absences hit.
However, the state returned to its requirements for the Alternative Methods of Instruction statute, which is called AMI.
Schools are only allowed to provide virtual instruction for to 36-hours per school year or about five days.
Dr. Evan Rhinesmith, Executive Director at Saint Louis University's Policy Research in Missouri Education (PRiME) Center said the original law was enacted prior to the 2019-2020 school year, as a means to make up for weather-related school cancellations.
"It got relaxed during the 2020-2021 year to provide flexibility in the event of COVID outbreaks in schools. That exemption expired this past summer, putting us in the position we’re in now as we see a spike in cases," Dr. Rhinesmith adds.
With the influx of teachers out, Lucas Crossing went remote on Jan. 13 and met its 36-hour distant learning cap. That's why an emergency meeting needed to happen on Friday morning.
Normandy school leaders voted and approved a new plan.
"We identified an online learning platform where we can engage students sitting in grade-level learning. It'll be on-site learning and it'll be a virtual platform. We really only want to use this on those days when we're short," Pusateri said.
This approach allows building aides or other non-certified staff to supervise a group of students working through the learning program.
It will cost the district $92,500 from Elementary and Secondary School Emergency Relief instructional supplies funds.
It meets the engagement purposes and Missouri learning standards and it can be ready in as little as five days.
The intended target for this program is K-8th grade, even though it is available to 12th grade, too.
Pusateri said the high schoolers already have a platform if they need to jump into that.
To get to this decision, the Normandy Schools Collaborative had to weigh three options. One would be to make up days after Memorial Day, as needed, or continue with remote learning, even on days that won't count. The third option is the one they chose.
"The platform is one of the top tiers," said George Barnes, the assistant superintendent for elementary instruction. "I’ve seen it work in other districts like Arizona and students are able to grow English language arts skills and math."
Dr. Pusateri said they feel like the 36-hour ruling would help if it was extended to 72 to 100 hours.
"That would give us that freedom and flexibility to do that. The rule puts a disadvantage on districts who are already short-staffed," he said.
McGowin explained why they are sticking with the ruling.
"If our school doors are closed, other families and parents cannot go to work," she said. "Not only is that our students learn best, but it's often the safest place for them to be. It means our students have access to the mental health and social-emotional support that they need on a given day."
While it's a hard decision, both are back to the original goal: to keep kids in schools.
The district is currently looking for new hires.
It has a Normandy Teaching Fellows Program, which would pay and train soon-to-be teachers.
It's increased its base pay for substitutes, which includes full benefits.
"We pay as much as $130 a day when you start and then, if you stick around it goes up to $175 a day and full benefits for substitutes," Pusateri said.