The image of students and teachers widely returning to classrooms across the St. Louis region, which has induced both feelings of fear and relief, turned out to be a mirage.
Almost two dozen school systems in the Metro East, St. Louis and St. Louis County have decided to continue with remote learning to start the school year, which for most begins Aug. 24.
Most school districts in the area cautiously released plans July 20 that included the option for families to choose in-school instruction, though in a limited way, along with a fully virtual option. Now that trend has nearly completely reversed.
Ritenour was the first St. Louis County district to decide to go all remote. Since then, just over half of districts in the county have followed. Most recent among them: Kirkwood, Clayton, Webster Groves, Pattonville, Brentwood and Parkway.
“Early July, I was really pretty confident we could come back with all our students with a lot of precautions,” said Keith Marty, superintendent of Parkway. “In the pandemic we’re in, I don’t know if anybody can talk about confidence.”
And the list continues to grow. Superintendents of University City, Hancock Place and St. Louis Public Schools are all asking their school boards to approve a virtual school start.
KIPP St. Louis, the third-largest charter school network in the city, will be going all virtual. So will Lift For Life Academy, the city’s oldest independent public school. Confluence Academies, the largest charter school, so far is sticking with offering in-classroom learning.
St. Louis County Executive Sam Page on Thursday strengthened his language around how the school year should begin. He is now formally recommending districts start virtually. Page stopped short of mandating that but warned the county health department would shut down school buildings if there’s an outbreak in them this fall.
“It’s unlikely that the spread of the virus will be sufficiently controlled in order for 300,000 students, 25,000 teachers and thousands of other staff to be able to attend school full-time without a significant risk of an outbreak,” he said.
How to begin the 2020-21 school year has pitted teachers unions against politicians, split parents and put school administrators in lose-lose situations.
Rockwood, the largest district in the county, is still planning to open its doors. A large group of parents there have been demanding even more in-school learning than attending school on alternating days, which is what’s currently being offered. The parent group sent a petition and spoke out at a recent school board meeting to ask for a five-day option. There’s a similar parent group in Parkway.
“For every parent who wants their kid to go to school five days a week, there's a parent who doesn't want their kids setting foot in school until winter break,” said Alex Fees, a spokesperson for Rockwood.
The most recent survey of Rockwood parents showed a near-even split in preference for in-person versus virtual, markedly down from the three-quarters of parents who told the district they wanted to send their kids back to school in early summer, Fees said.
“Things have just changed dramatically,” he said.
The feelings of St. Louis Public Schools parents about sending kids back to school inverted over the course of a few weeks this summer. At one point, 67% said they will send their children to school. But when asked again last week, 65% said they wanted a virtual start. If SLPS’s plan is approved, about 20 of its 68 buildings will be open as drop-in centers for students to be supervised and for meals during the day while students work online.
SLPS and Normandy — which hasn’t canceled plans for in-person school yet — have both pushed the start of the school year back by one and two weeks, respectively, to allow for more preparation time.
In Illinois, Waterloo, East St. Louis, Granite City and Cahokia have all announced remote-learning plans. Districts in St. Charles and Jefferson counties are sticking with plans to offer in-school learning.
Missouri Gov. Mike Parson, who for much of the summer has pushed for children to be back in school, said following a meeting Wednesday with St. Louis-area superintendents that he supports their decision to not bring kids back.
School administrators whose districts are starting virtually said they can quickly welcome kids back to school later in the fall if the pandemic improves.
“We think that transition is going to be less impactful to families,” said Ritenour Superintendent Chris Kilbride, “as opposed to starting up a year in a hybrid model, and then having to transition into a fully virtual environment.”
Administrators who are still planning for in-person learning acknowledged it may not last all year.
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