Independence schools stick with opening next Monday

Mike Genet

As the Independence School District continues to move forward with plans to start the school year next Monday, including in-person classes with some on a hybrid schedule, Superintendent Dale Herl said he believes that is what most people want.

Although many metro area school districts have pushed their start dates back to Sept. 8, amid a metro-area surge in COVID-19 cases, Independence is among those starting next week, along with the Belton, Harrisonville, Raymore-Peculiar and Liberty districts.

Herl cited the district’s success with its summer school and activities – 12 confirmed cases among 4,000 people, with no in-school spread – and extensive planning with health precautions and virtual learning plans for not starting later.

“We would not be opening if we did not think we could do it safely,” he said. “The feedback we’d received from people is they are very appreciative of the opportunity.”

A grassroots group called Missourians for Educational Change said it planned to have rallies Tuesday afternoon and Saturday outside the district’s central office, urging the district to push back the start of school and begin with all virtual classes. The group cited several anonymous ISD staff members with various concerns about safety and job security.

Speaking Tuesday morning, Herl did not address the rally itself, though he acknowledged some would be anxious about returning.

“Certainly there are some that are concerned, and I understand that, but overwhelmingly people are ready for school to start,” Herl said, adding that everything with reopening goes back to choice.

“All of our decisions dealt around giving families and employees the choice. Our employees had the choice of taking a short-term sabbatical, and less then one-half of one percent have chosen that. When you go virtual, you take all the choices away. We’ve worked all summer and spring putting together our plan, and our parents and staff are ready.”

His regular Zoom discussion Monday with teachers from each of the district buildings reiterated that feeling, Herl said.

Herl said if Independence Schools had started with all virtual learning, some furloughs and layoffs would have taken place, and that’s not something he wanted. The district is the largest employer in the city of Independence.

“My No. 1 concern was taking care of our employees and our families,” he’s said. “(Cutting jobs) is not something I wanted to do.”

The district said earlier this month about 25 percent of students across the district signed up for all virtual classes for the fall. For those who chose in-person classes, elementary students will be in classrooms five days a week, and Herl said those classes would be capped at about 15 to 16 students. With the hybrid schedule, middle school and high school students at each school will be divided into two groups, and those groups will have alternating weeks of in-person and virtual classes.

Students and staff will be required to wear masks at all times except when eating lunch and in physical education classes. Herl said his district, like neighboring districts, maintains regular communication with the Jackson County Health Department about its health protocols.

Chelsea Egli, a former teacher with the district, said she and others started Missourians for Educational Change – the group planning the protests – this summer to address school reopening plans around Missouri amid the pandemic.

“It’s not that we’re opposed to going back to classrooms; we just know it’s not safe right now,” she said.

Egli, who now teaches elsewher in the metro area, said she has heard from several friends still working in the district.

“We’ve had an influx of teachers reaching out to us anonymously because they are afraid to speak out, for retaliation,” Egli said.

Among the concerns Egli said she’s heard: not enough cleaning supplies; not enough ability to properly social distance; questions about whether HVAC systems could circulate uninfected air; and teachers being responsible for both online and in-person classes and potential job loss with virtual classes. The sabbatical option, she said, is not financially feasible for many staff members, and they’ve been trying to get teachers’ unions to speak out about reopening concerns.

Local representatives of the Missouri National Educators Association had not returned messages from The Examiner early Tuesday seeking comment.