Omicron surge forces Missouri educators to consider alternative learning


Empty classroom photo courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.

As Omicron cases surge in Missouri, causing districts to have a shortage of staff, lawmakers’ choice to rescind on COVID-19 policies from last year has left districts with only 36 hours of excused alternate instruction time. Currently, the state of Missouri requires 1,044 hours of instruction hours, according to the Department of Elementary and Secondary Education (DESE).

“So if a school chooses to use their 36 hours of Alternative Methods of Instruction, and they continue to have to close their doors after those 36 hours are used, if they need those hours of instruction to reach 1,044, they will have to make up those hours at a later point in the school year,” said DESE spokeswoman Mallory McGowin.

 This has left districts with the uneasy question of what to do with staffing and COVID-19 mounting issues for in-person learning, when the alternative will mean an extension to the end of the year. According to the Missouri Department of Health and Senior Services, as of Jan. 22 there were 3,614 patients hospitalized with COVID-19 with a remaining inpatient bed capacity at hospitals of 18%. The new Omicron variant has caused cases to spike in the state of Missouri, and according to the CDC spreads faster than the normal COVID-19 strain. 

As of Jan. 23, 62 districts have had to temporarily close mainly due to a surge in COVID-19 cases. With about a week of virtual learning available to these districts, it is likely that some will be forced to extend their school year. Lawmakers’ push to keep students in the classroom despite COVID-19 was echoed in Gov. Mike Parson’s State of the State address to the Missouri congress Jan. 19. 

“Last year, 95 percent of Missouri schools saw the value of in-person learning and did the right thing by keeping their doors open and our kids in schools where they belong,” said Parson, “… Nothing can replace the classroom.”

Parson’s statements regarding in-person learning reinforces the stance he and other Missouri Republicans hold when it comes to how they want Missouri schools to face the COVID-19 pandemic. State Attorney General Eric Schmitt recently filed lawsuits against nine more districts, which according to his official website is to “halt their illegal mask mandate policies.” The opposition to such policies seen in various states since the beginning of the pandemic, was seemingly praised by Parson as a triumph of protecting personal livelihoods.

“That’s why we never had state mandates or forced businesses, schools, or churches to close,” Parson said. “We protected lives and livelihoods.”

The pressure being put against educators and school districts has not gone without drawing criticism. Missouri House minority leader Crystal Quade, a Democrat from Springfield, responded to the governor’s State of the State address shortly afterwards.

“When it comes to fighting the pandemic, the governor’s hands-off approach continues to extract a hefty toll with new cases shattering records almost daily,” said Quade, “The reality is forcing many schools to consider shutting down as student and teacher absences skyrocket.”