Early success in containing virus prompts more St. Louis area schools to bring students back ​

One month after thousands of students returned to schools across St. Louis, there have been no coronavirus outbreaks or spikes associated with in-person learning. The initial success has led many school districts to bring students back after starting the year fully online.

“Schools are the cleanest places to be right now, and the healthiest places,” said Jason Sefrit, superintendent of the 4,900-student City of St. Charles School District.

As of Thursday, there have been seven confirmed or probable COVID-19 cases in students and three in staff members in the district, where 65% of students attend school five days a week. Three elementary schools and one middle school haven’t reported any cases since school started Aug. 27.

“This has not been easy. Our staff are working extremely hard to make sure we can stay in school,” Sefrit said. “COVID is the number one thing on our minds every day.”

Coronavirus cases in children have held steady since most schools in St. Charles County opened in late August. Among 5- to 10-year-olds, there were 46 cases in July, 47 cases in August and 33 cases so far in September. There were 34 cases in 11- to 13-year-olds in July and again in August, and 30 cases this month. Older teenagers recorded 278 cases in July, 252 in August and 208 with a week remaining in September.

In St. Louis County, thousands of students returned to private school campuses in late August while most public school buildings stayed closed. Only Jennings, Lindbergh and Normandy school districts started the year with in-person options.

County health officials have recently updated their recommendations for all-virtual learning to allow for the return of elementary and middle school students, based on declining rates of coronavirus in the age groups. About a dozen districts have started to bring back students in the youngest grades.

Daily new cases at the ZIP code level have been unchanged in September in the Mehlville School District, said Superintendent Chris Gaines. Preschoolers through second graders can now return to school in the district, with older students through middle school returning in early October.

“I think our students with special needs are probably struggling the most (with virtual learning), and so that’s part of the reason that we want to get our students back as soon as we can, as soon as it’s feasible,” Gaines said.

In the Parkway district, leaders have indicated an intent to open schools in October if positive trends continue. Emily Maupin, an organizer of the group Parkway Parents for In Person Learning, said families have experienced frustrations with virtual learning from privacy concerns, excessive screen time and technology glitches to reports of depression in children.

“We’re all working towards the same goal of having some normalcy for our kids, addressing their academic and physical needs,” she said. “Is the risk outweighing the virtual learning harm that’s being put on our kids? Every workplace that has remained open has put in protocols to keep workers and customers safe. Schools can do the same.”

School administrators said stifling the spread of the virus requires strict adherence to protocols for wearing masks, spreading out and staying home when sick. Community buy-in, hard work and courage also play a major role.

Reopening the Whitfield campus in west St. Louis County for the first time since March came “not without trepidation,” said John Delautre, head of school.

The school’s COVID-19 mitigation strategy starts with the hypothetical premise that everyone in the building carries the virus, Delautre said. All school employees became certified contact tracers over the summer.

About 60 of the school’s 450 students chose to start the year virtually. Since school started on Aug. 25, about half of them have switched to in-person learning.

Vanesa and Tyrone Sutton of Lake Saint Louis said they left it up to their son Bryson to decide if he wanted to return to campus for 10th grade or stay online.

“Along with that went a lot of concerns about what’s going on right now, but I do think my son is happier with the in-person experience,” said Tyrone Sutton. “We do trust they’ll do their best to keep the kids safe.”

Earlier this month, Catholic grade schools in Crestwood and Shrewsbury moved to virtual learning for two weeks after a staff member tested positive. Overall, fewer than half of the Catholic schools in the St. Louis Archdiocese have responded to a “COVID-related event,” defined as a possible exposure or a positive test, said Archdiocese spokesman Peter Frangie.

“The response by our families, teachers, principals and presidents has been an incredible show of unity and strength in our school communities,” Frangie said.

St. Louis Language Immersion School opened its doors six weeks ago and has since reported no cases in students or staff. About 150 students, or one-third of the charter school’s population, chose the in-person option.

The downtown St. Louis school has a full-time nurse with help from a BJC HealthCare grant. Everybody in the building wears a mask and gets a health screening every morning.

“It takes a lot of collective responsibility, every individual needs to realize that their decisions impact the whole community,” said Meghan Hill, superintendent.

Trouble spots

At least 120 school districts in Illinois report cases in students or staff, including 25 in Granite City and 31 in Mascoutah. Districts in Columbia and Waterloo cited low coronavirus numbers in Monroe County in their recent plans to welcome students back to schools.

Missouri has not reported coronavirus data linked to schools, but some areas including Jefferson County have seen a rise in cases in children. During the first week of September, there were 70 COVID-19 cases in children and teenagers 19 and younger in the county and 65 cases in the second week. In the last week, the number of cases jumped to 101.

The De Soto school board voted Tuesday to move from a five-day schedule to all-virtual on Mondays because the district has been “teetering on not having enough staff each day to maintain school operations,” according to a letter from Superintendent Josh Isaacson.

The 2,400-student district reports six active cases of COVID-19 in staff members and 24 additional employees on quarantine. Teachers and other staff members have had to act as substitutes in classrooms and for bus drivers, food workers and custodians, Isaacson said.

There are 10 cases in De Soto students, and 251 under quarantine. Another 100 have been quarantined at some point in the last month. Students moving back and forth from virtual to in-person has strained teachers’ workloads to an “unsustainable” level, according to the superintendent.

Masks are optional for students in the district. Most of the COVID-19 cases have been traced to exposures outside of schools, Isaacson said.

Students will receive assignments but no live instruction from teachers on virtual Mondays, which are scheduled through Jan. 11.