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Jackson schools will not require mask wearing when school starts in August

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The Jackson R-2 School Board approved the District’s COVID-19 plan for the upcoming school year during its June 22 meeting, removing many restrictions but leaving the possibility to go back to the 2020-21 procedures if needed.

Mask wearing and screening procedures will not be enforced as school begins this August, but could be brought back if COVID-19 numbers go up in the area. In addition, bus routes, sporting events and food services in the District should look more like they did in 2019.

Last year, in-person students were required to bring a mask to school and wear it during passing periods, when working in small groups, on school buses and when social distancing was not possible.

“During summer school, we did not have to implement our masking policy and we have done very well,” Director of Communications Merideth Pobst said to the Board. “We’ve had a very low number of COVID-19 cases and we’ve had happy and healthy students and staff. This school year we plan to start out the school year, and hopefully stay that way without masks or face coverings.”

Should the masking requirement or other COVID-19 procedures return, the community will be informed through multiple communication channels and signs will be added to every District entrance.

The District has also modified its self-quarantining procedures to allow fully vaccinated students or employees to continue going to school after being exposed to a close COVID-19 contact if they show no symptoms.

“This vaccination is not required, but information is made available to our students and staff members as to when vaccination clinics are held.” The plan lists potential vaccination clinics in the community on July 22 and Aug. 12.

The District may still exclude students or employees who have had close contact with someone with COVID-19 symptoms or diagnosed with COVID-19, or have recently traveled from somewhere considered to be a “hot spot” by the United States Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

“Last year, our plan worked well and we did not have to shut down at all during the school year due to COVID-19,” Pobst said. “We felt very blessed because of that and we feel like this plan was part of the reason why we did not have to shut down. We did a lot of work to ensure our students’ safety and teaching them about proper hygiene and things like that.”

Pobst mentioned that unlike last year, the district is now better prepared for pandemic-related events, such as upgrading the District’s HVAC systems and purchasing air purifiers. “Last year, we had to purchase additional equipment,” she said. “Hopefully we will have some of those things already in place should we have to go back to that.”

The plan includes several of the District’s procedures used last school year, with the amendment that they will only be used if “a pandemic situation develops during the school year.”

“Before COVID-19, we didn’t have this plan completely laid out and last school year we were able to put this plan together,” Pobst said. “It worked well and should we need it, we will go back to that.”

Ignite Online, which provided more than 560 Jackson students with virtual learning last year, will not be an option for most students this upcoming school year. Pobst said this decision was mostly due to decreased demand. The program first saw a drop in enrollment this spring, with around 300 students returning to in-person instruction.

“Through surveying, we realized that we have very few students that are in need of that particular program, so we plan to be in-person,” Pobst said.

Students who have a strong medical reason to participate in Ignite Online will still be able to participate in the online instruction program by first speaking to their building principal and then making arrangements with the District’s central office.

“We will make accommodations should that be necessary, but so far we have had very few students who are taking advantage of that program,” Pobst said. “I think everyone is ready to be back in-person.”

The District will continue block scheduling for students at the middle school, junior high and high school four days a week.

“We started the block schedule because of COVID-19 protocol, but we liked the positive student benefits and the instructional opportunities that block scheduling provides, Assistant Superintendent Matt Lacy said. “We are going to have a traditional day on Wednesdays so we can still have staff collaboration, but four days a week will still be block scheduled.”

Pobst said the plan will be reviewed every six months, if not sooner. The modified Safe Return to In-Person Instruction and Continuity of Services Plan has been added to the School District’s website under district information.

In other action:

• The Board approved the budget for the 2021-22 school year, including an estimated $62 million in expenses and $62.3 million in revenue. The District expects to have an increase to its cash balance this year, with an expected starting balance of $19.3 million on July 1 and an ending balance of $19.7 million at the end of the school year.

The District is expecting an additional $500,000 in local tax revenue due to increased assessed value in the area, as well as additional COVID-19 related funding at the federal level.

The District’s enrollment is continuing to grow, with a 5.7 percent increase in enrollment over the past five years. During the 2020-21 school year, the district had 5,233 K-12 students and 300 students in the pre-kindergarten program.

Director of Finance Terry Gibson said the District is estimating an additional 100 students this upcoming school year, and will add an additional seven teachers. The District is expecting to employ 385 full time teachers this upcoming school year.

Teachers received a two percent raise for the upcoming school year, which Gibson said has been the annual increase for the past three years. “We’ve been able to stay ahead of most districts in the southeast region when it comes to teacher salaries,” Gibson said.

The District is expecting to receive 51 percent of its funding through local sources, 37 percent from state funding, 10 percent through federal funding and two percent through the county. Gibson said they did have a decrease in local funding due to families not having to pay for school meals.

“In a typical year, we generate about $900,000 in revenue from serving lunch and breakfast,” Gibson said, adding that the funding will be offset by an increase in federal funds to cover the cost of student meals.

The District is expecting to spend 54 percent of its budget on salaries, 19 percent on employee benefits, 10 percent on supplies, seven percent on purchased services, seven percent on debt payments and three percent on capital outlay.

• The Board approved changes to several District policies, including the addition of vaping products to its use of tobacco policy that prohibits the use or possession of tobacco-related products on District property.

The District is now required to provide training in the proper use of automated external defibrillators (AEDs) in addition to CPR training for high school students.

The policy changes also included a statement that all sexual harassment reports go to the Title IX coordinator, an update to the hazardous material policy stating the District is required to notify the community if lead is found in drinking water and the ability for the School Board to reorganized officer positions in the event of a Board vacancy.

The policy on homeless students was updated to allow District personnel to help unaccompanied youths who are not in the physical custody of a legal guardian obtain verification of their independent status to obtain healthcare, housing, college financial assistance and legal documents without parental consent.

An update to the payment process was made to address authentication and prospective payment options, and language was added to the animals on District property policy to make clear that misrepresenting a dog as a service dog is a crime.

Another policy change was moving the deadline for support staff to participate in the sick leave pool from July 1 to Aug. 1. This was done to line up the deadline with all other paperwork submitted with their contracts.

The student transportation services policy was rescinded and will now be used as just a procedure, and the student discipline policy was updated to comply with new sexual harassment guidelines.

• The Board approved a memorandum of understanding with the Jackson Police Department in regard to the District’s five school resource officers (SROs). The District pays a portion of the SRO’s salary and benefits based on the percentage of time utilized by the School District.

The only change from the last approved memorandum with the Jackson Police Department is the addition of a six-month notice from the District superintendent or chief of police if an SRO position is eliminated.

• The District’s in-person summer school ended on June 22, with record enrollment. Around 36 percent of the student body attended summer school – 900 of the students were in elementary school, 300 were middle school students, 140 were junior high students and 560 were high school students.

In addition, around 215 students are taking part in the District’s summer camp, which is held from the end of summer school through the first two weeks in August. This was also record enrollment for the summer camp program.

• Mobile food pantry events are scheduled for July 17 and Aug. 21. The August event will also include free clothes, shoes and backpacks for the upcoming school year. Funding for the free mobile food pantry is raised by the Jackson R-2 Foundation.

• The Board approved meal prices for upcoming year. Students will receive free meals through U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) funding, and meal prices for adults will not go up. Adult lunch meals will remain at $3.85 and adult breakfast meals will remain $2.30.

During the 2020-21 school year, 17,940 adult lunches and 876 adult breakfast meals were served; 531,101 student lunches and 259,363 student breakfast meals were reimbursed.

• The Board approved several bids, including a gasoline and diesel fuel bid from Co-Op Service Center and a tire bid from Purcell Tire. The Board approved a bid from Santie Oil Company to provide oil, grease, transmission fluid and antifreeze.

A previously approved bread bid from Bimbo Bread had to be rebid due to Bimbo Bread’s inability to provide bread to the District because of production issues. Kohl Wholesales was the only bid during the rebidding process and was awarded the bread and bread product bid for the upcoming school year.

• The Board approved the extended school year bus routes. Five buses will be used during the 16 day extended school year this summer for students with disabilities.

Jay Forness covers education, county government and community events for The Cash-Book Journal. He graduated from Southeast Missouri State University with a degree in multimedia journalism and has lived in Jackson for the past four years. He can be reached at cbjedit@socket.net.

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