Most decisions about what the upcoming school year will look like in Missouri's elementary and secondary schools will be made by local officials, who are still struggling with many concerns about the coronavirus pandemic, the head of the state's education department said.

JEFFERSON CITY — Most decisions about what the upcoming school year will look like in Missouri's elementary and secondary schools will be made by local officials, who are still struggling with many concerns about the coronavirus pandemic, the head of the state's education department said.

Surveys indicate that most educators and families want to return to in-school classes in the fall, after schools went online in the spring, Margie Vandeven, commissioner of the Missouri Department of Elementary and Secondary Education said Thursday.

Vandeven said the education department has not received many requests from local districts for an earlier start date, with most districts planning to start on Aug. 24.

The closing of school buildings highlighted a "great digital divide" in the state, with one in five students unable to take part in online learning, "making any kind of long-term remote learning a real challenge for those students," she said. 

Other consequences included unreported child abuse, less access to the food students usually receive from school, families struggling with child care, and damage to students' social growth, she said.

"These implications are being considered along with continued risk of COVID-19, and therefore, school leaders and local health officials are working thoughtfully to reopen our schools," Vandeven said.

Vandeven said school districts will decide whether to require masks at schools, class sizes and other guidance for reopening schools. Safety practices such as social distancing will be emphasized and school officials will be asked to make contract tracing as efficient as possible if a COVID-19 case is confirmed.

For its part, the state will waive attendance requirements that are used to calculate school funding, and will assure that schools are paid for in-school learning, online education or a combination of the two, she said.

The department wants schools to drop incentives for attendance, such as perfect attendance awards, to encourage students and staff to stay home if they are ill, which Vandeven called "a real paradigm shift" for education officials.