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JEFFERSON CITY, Mo. – If you’re a parent, student or educator, you know the past year has been anything but easy.

Missouri’s Department of Elementary and Secondary Education (DESE) Commissioner Margie Vandeven said she sees light at the end of the tunnel.

“One thing I’ve certainly learned, is really the resiliency of our kids, the tenacity of our teachers who have been in there every day working to serve them better,” Vandeven said.

She says local control allowed individual school district to decide what works best for them.

“I think we’ve certainly learned there’s just real value of our kids being in school for a lot of reasons,” Vandeven said. “Academic being one of them, but the social, emotional side of that. The mental health issues that we hear about.”

Vandeven said 98% of the state’s districts are offering in-person learning.

“What we are hearing and learning, is that soe students are thriving in this environment, they just are,” she said “They have resources at home, and then we have some students that we’re not sure have been in the educational system since last March.”

Teacher retention has been a concern for her for a few years, but this year especially.

“We were concerned about teachers already leaving the field, now with the current conditions of COVID, it’s been tough,” Vandeven said.

Besides teachers, students’ lives have also changed over the past year.

“Last year, in the midst of the pandemic, you know typically we do those test in the spring and in the midst of the pandemic, we were one of the first state to say, you know this isn’t the right time to a standardized test,” Vandeven said.

With spring near, Vandeven said the state will resume testing.

“What I think we are going to see the most of, and what causes me the deepest concern, and what i think we are really trying to get a handle on in using these test data pints, is what does that gap look like,” she said.

The results from the test go the districts, the parents and then the schools’ results are posted online. Besides locally, the results are also sent to the U.S. Department of Education for federal requirements, like accountability. Last spring, the Trump administration waived the tests from being sent to Washington D.C., but Vandeven said the Biden administration has not yet issued a waiver.

Earlier this year the Missouri Board of Education voted to avoid using 2021 standardized test for state and federal accountability. This means the results would not count against schools for funding and accreditation purposes.

School districts are also preparing for the vaccine.

“Just like the vaccine rollout, every community just looks a little different, dependent upon the resources that are available in that community,” Vandeven said.

Until the vaccine is available to teachers, which in Missouri is the next tier, Phase 1B, tier 3, she says remember the heroes behind the computer and in front of the class.

“Thank your teachers,” Vandeven said. “They need to know and feel and understand how appreciated they really are.”

And as for next year, Vandeven said for now, she expects teachers and students to be back in the classroom.

“I don’t know what normal is anymore,” Vandeven said. “I think we learned so much from this virus and so much from this disruption, that if school doesn’t change a little bit, then shame on us. I certainly expect that we will have students in-person, in-person learning in the fall.”

Last week, Gov. Mike Parson announced during his State of the State address, a new office, combining three state agencies, would help early childhood development. The program is called the Office of Early Childhood location.

“This is a consolidation of offices into one main office,” Vandeven said. “When you have a fragmented system like that, you can see why bringing them under one umbrella is really going to be helpful and beneficial to our families.”

Vandeven said the office will be placed under DESE and will help children and families from birth to age five.

“You’ll see things like home visiting, early interventions, childcare, early learning, all being the primary focus of the Office of Early Childhood,” Vandeven said. “We need to make sure our kids are prepared for success.”

Part of having a skilled and education workforce starts in early childhood Vandeven said.

“We know that is dependent on a strong start, but the strong start isn’t just about academics, that strong start is making sure they’re healthy, making sure our kids feel safe, making sure they are secure and then they are really prepared to move into that next phase of learning.”

Even though DESE, the Department of Social Services and Department of Health and Senior Services are combining a portion of their offices for the new program, Vandeven said no one is losing their job. There will be roughly 145 people working in the office.

Before the Office of Early Childhood can officially start helping families, it has to be approved by the General Assembly.