A new survey of teachers, released just hours before Missouri reported the first day with more than 2,000 new COVID-19 cases, shows many are anxious about a return to in-class instruction.
The Missouri National Education Association survey of more than 24,000 teachers showed that few think their districts can provide the protective gear they will need and an even smaller share think their districts have clear safety protocols and the space to implement them.
"This survey finds that educators are experiencing high levels of stress and anxiety," says the report on the survey, released Thursday morning. "Educators worry about the health of students, coworkers, and their families. Educators believe safety should guide district decisions for returning to in-seat instruction."
The 2,084 new coronavirus infections reported Thursday is the highest tally yet from the Department of Health and Senior Services and the third consecutive day of a new high. New highs have been set on seven of the past 10 days as the state has added 15,210 new cases, representing 31 percent of the 48,834 infections reported since early March.
Of that total, 11,100 cases have been in people under 25 and that population represents a growing number of all cases. There were 501 new infections among people under 24 reported Thursday and in the past two weeks, that group’s share of the total has grown from 19.7 percent to 22.8 percent.
In Boone County, an even larger share of the case count is among younger people. The Columbia-Boone County Health Department reported 28 new infections on Thursday, bringing the total since mid-March to 1,142.
Of the 342 new cases over the past two weeks, 142 have been among people under 25, who represent 41.5 percent of all cases reported in the county.
Gov. Mike Parson, who has pushed for schools to reopen, on Wednesday backed Springfield Public Schools’ plan to reopen schools with two days of in-person instruction per student.
Parson met privately with local education leaders Wednesday.
In a brief Q&A with reporters, Parson acknowledged the frustration some residents have expressed with the policies, saying he knows many parents across the state want their kids back in the classroom full time.
"But when you look at a Springfield school district," he said, "I would look at how big that is, and ask ‘How do you do that?’ and ‘How do you do that safely?’"
"I think at the end of the day, education is critical to our state," he continued. "But so is safety, and you’re got to figure out how you can have the kids, the teachers, juniors, the administration, the cooks — all of that comes together and you’ve got to decide how you deal with that."
He allowed that many districts may need to make adjustments as they move forward, but expressed confidence they'll make the right call.
"I'm confident in the administrators across this state, I'm confident in the school boards that are around here," he said. "They got elected to make decisions for their communities and they're going to know what best suits their communities."
On Monday, the Boonville Board of Education approved a reopening plan for students and staff to return to classrooms Aug. 24.
Reopening plans still could change between now and the first day of school though, Superintendent Sarah Marriott said. The plan right now is students and teachers will return to classrooms for the first time since March 17.
Summer school just ended and Marriott is excited to for students to learn again, whether virtually or in-person.
"We miss our students,"she said. "Learning is why we are in education. We feel that obviously it's extremely important."
Parson’s comments in Springfield came roughly a week after the district announced its final re-entry plan for the fall semester and gave parents two choices: Sign up for full-time virtual learning or the hybrid model with two days in the classroom and three days of virtual learning each week.
Students with last names starting with A-K will go Mondays and Tuesdays, L-Z will go Thursdays and Fridays, and everyone will learn virtually Wednesday while schools are cleaned.
Administrators framed the plan, which also requires everyone to wear masks, as a measured response to the ongoing pandemic and a troubling rise in cases through the region and the state.
Some of those cases have hit within the district this summer, closing Rountree for a couple of weeks and halting in-person football conditioning at Glendale High School.
But at least some parents have balked at the plan, including more than a dozen who gathered Monday at Park Central Square to demand full-time in-person learning.
Some parents said they’re worried their kids will fall behind online and others said they need their kids at school so they can go to work.
Parson said he’s also concerned about children from low-income families getting meals and seeing school nurses who may be their only health care provider.
(Springfield schools plan to offer meal services five days per week regardless of whether students are learning at home or at school.)
But Parson also said he trusts local leaders to make the right calls and make adjustments as they’re necessary.
"I think the Springfield school district, (Superintendent) John (Jungmann) does a good job down here," Parson said. "And if he needs to make adjustments, he'll make adjustments, because I think all school districts will as we move forward."
Jungmann, for his part, also addressed criticism Wednesday, saying he and every school administrator in the state want to return to normal as soon as possible.
"We just don’t believe that we can effectively start that way," he said.
He added that administrators think the district can get back to five-days-a-week in-person at the end of the first quarter of the school year, but cautioned that the trajectory of the virus would "push our decision making when it comes to next steps."
The Missouri National Education Association survey shows teachers are wary of returning.
In a report dated Sunday, the White House's coronavirus task force designated Missouri as one of around 20 states with "red zone" status after it recorded more than 100 new cases per 100,000 people last week.
"No one wants our students back in schools more than educators, but we must prioritize student and educator safety," Phil Murray, a Poplar Bluff teacher and president of the union, said in a news release.
Parson, a Republican, also spoke Wednesday for the Springfield Area Chamber of Commerce’s version of the "State of the State."
Parson spent part of the speech touting progress combating the pandemic, noting hospitals have yet to be overwhelmed and pointing out testing and personal protective equipment have gotten far more accessible.
"I'm so proud of our citizens, Missouri companies, chambers and communities across the state for doing their part," he said. "Thanks to all of you, we have overcome all of these obstacles."
Despite that success, the state has continued to report record one-day increases in COVID-19 cases over and over in recent weeks. State data also show the percentage of tests coming back positive is increasing, indicating current containment efforts are not enough to slow the spread.
Despite the rising numbers, Missouri "is in a different place" than it was early in the pandemic thanks to better testing and a better understanding of the illness, a spokeswoman for the state health department said.
Missouri Department of Health and Senior Services spokeswoman Lisa Cox said in an email that health officials now know more about how the virus behaves and are better prepared to deal with it.
Testing has also improved greatly, Cox said. Whereas only a few thousand Missourians were tested each week early in the pandemic, more than 90,000 people are now being tested weekly, she said.
Cox cited a big increase in the number of younger people coming down with the virus, raising concern that many have "let their guard down on using preventive measures such as social distancing, wearing face masks and using good hand-washing," Cox said.
Rudi Keller of the Columbia Daily Tribune, Austin Huguelet and Claudette Riley of the Springfield News-Leader, Chris Bowie of the Moberly Monitor-Index and the Associated Press contributed to this report.