SBJ photo by McKenzie Robinson

A Conversation With ... John Jungmann

Superintendent, Springfield Public Schools

Posted online

SPS announced Oct. 14 its plans to increase in-person learning to four days a week for pre-K-8 students beginning next month, with high school student options remaining unchanged. What are the key factors that played into the decision?
The health of our students and staff. We spent a lot of time with the [Springfield-Greene County] Health Department reviewing case data in our schools and each of the cases that we’ve had throughout the first six weeks. What it primarily told us is transmission is very low in schools and that has allowed us to keep our campuses open, and it has allowed us to safely operate in-person opportunities. And we believe that there are a number of factors of both academic and social that we need to be better serving our students in. With the current conditions of transmission, adding instructional days is the next right thing to do.

The district has had roughly 200 COVID-19 positive cases since school started Aug. 24 among the 27,000 students and staff. That’s a positivity rate of 0.75%. Is there a target positivity rate to determine low transmission?
That is significantly lower than the community rate, which means that when we open schools, they did not become spreader locations. That’s what the Health Department, I believe, really referred to as a reason that we could expand days.

Drury University experienced the death of a staff member this month from COVID-19. What are the risks of not bringing kids back to school that outweigh these risks of potential exposures and exposing at-risk staff?
You think of the primary risk especially of young kids. They are in their prime development to acquire reading skills and knowledge necessary to put them on the trajectory for their educational journey. Anything that puts them behind is a high concern. One of the important metrics is we’re down 400 kindergartners this year as compared to our normal enrollment. While we do have access for virtual students to come in and get meals, [we’re] highly concerned that our students are not getting as many meals as they would in our in-person environments. You also have mental health supports.

Do you expect high school students to remain in the two-day model for next semester?
Not sure yet. That will remain for second quarter and we will continue to work over the next four weeks to really talk to our building leaders, our teachers, and our parents and students about what ways can we get more in-person experiences for those kids. As we looked at the data, that is the one move we didn’t make because case count was twice as high at the high school level.

What are the numbers that would be red flags to take a step backward from this plan?
We’re probably not going to make changes that are universal to all 50 sites because we have buildings that haven’t had a case. At any point, if a campus had 3% absences due to COVID positives among student populations for consecutive days, that would be a trigger point. Or if we had a spike where we had 5% of our students who were absent because of COVID positives, that would be a trigger point.

There have been reports on the pressures that teachers are facing amid the pandemic. Can you speak to the workload and the mental health of the SPS staff?
This is the hardest work that teachers have ever done. They care so much about their students and they want to see them be successful that they’ll go lengths that aren’t healthy for them mentally and the workload. Delivering in a hybrid model or a virtual model that you weren’t trained to do, you received a little bit of training, but you haven’t done before really has almost put all of our teachers into being first-year educators. We also believe this shift in the four-day model, while it does create some additional challenges, it also helps teachers get closer to back to normal.

Last month you announced plans to retire from the district after this academic year. What are your plans after public education?
I really don’t know yet. Hoping to stay in Springfield and watch our kids continue to grow up. Will certainly continue to work, and in something likely to do with education, but will see what happens.

John Jungmann can be reached at jejungmann@spsmail.org.