Missouri schools will not reopen for the remainder of the academic year, Gov. Mike Parson announced Thursday afternoon.
"I am ordering all Missouri public and charter schools to remain closed through the remainder of this academic year with the exceptions of nutrition services and child care that are outlined in our recent health order," Parson said.
The decision was made in conjunction with the Missouri Department of Elementary and Secondary Education and several school superintendents from across the state – from both urban and rural districts, Parson said.
At his daily COVID-19 press briefing in Jefferson City, Parson was flanked by Education Commissioner Margie Vandeven.
"School services should continue through the last day of school in each school district, as pre-established by the school calendar approved by the local school board," Vandeven said. "We know remote teaching and learning looks different in every district, so we are simply asking our school leaders to continue to be creative."
Melissa Randol, president of the Missouri School Boards Association, said the decision is “a necessary step to protect the health and safety of our students, teachers, staff and communities.”
Most schools around the state closed in mid-March, first for two weeks, then through late April. A few had already said they would not reopen this year, including two districts in Warren County outside St. Louis.
Parson's announcement brings Missouri in line with 17 other states that have closed schools for the rest of the school year, including neighboring Kansas. Illinois’ public schools are currently closed through the end of April.
There is still the chance schools could hold an in-person summer school session, which typically starts in early or mid-June.
School systems in St. Louis and St. Louis County, which had been making decisions on school closure timelines together, independently announced Thursday they’d keep buildings closed.
“This decision was extremely difficult but it is imperative that we take bold measures to further mitigate the spread of COVID-19 and help save lives in our community,” Maplewood Richmond Heights Superintendent Karen Hall wrote in a letter to parents.
Parson, who just a few weeks ago refused to close businesses and schools statewide, beat St. Louis-area schools to the punch by a few minutes as he’s tried to retake the lead on the pandemic response.
Meanwhile, superintendents stressed that learning — albeit remote learning, delivered online — will continue, although many districts, including Francis Howell in St. Charles County, have or will cut back to four days a week of instruction.
The decision was “based on feedback from parents and teachers and our desire to not add additional stress to families or staff,” Superintendent Mary Hendricks-Harris wrote in a letter.
Meal services will also continue, however at least a half-dozen districts in the state have had to suspend or reduce distribution after employees got sick.
State standardized testing already had been canceled. Attendance tracking has also been relaxed. Many districts are only grading work as pass-fail. The rollout of remote learning has been uneven, with private schools and affluent districts getting set up faster. St. Louis Public Schools spent $100,000 through its foundation on more tablets and Wi-Fi hotspots for students, only beginning distribution on Wednesday.
Districts are now trying to figure out what graduation will look like with social distancing likely to continue into May.
“There are certainly many school-related traditions in the spring that we need to let go of this year, but for the graduating class of 2020, we are committed to honoring you with a special commencement ceremony, either in-person or online,” the Grain Valley School District tweeted minutes after Parson announced schools would remain closed.
The governor also expressed condolences to high school seniors.
“My granddaughter is one of that senior class who’s out there from a small school,” Parson said. “For you seniors out there, I understand how disappointing this will be. We will work with DESE; we will work with the superintendents across the state to make sure you get the opportunity to walk down that aisle and get that diploma.”
Elle covers education for KCUR. You can follow her on Twitter: @ellemoxley
Follow Ryan on Twitter: @rpatrickdelaney
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