Hazelwood schools reopen after a year of virtual learning
HAZELWOOD — For the first time in more than a year, students in the Hazelwood School District are experiencing the real world of desks, recess and gym class.
Schools reopened Monday for prekindergarten through second grade. Over the next two weeks, students in the higher grades will return.
Hazelwood is the last district in the region to resume in-person school, yet only about a third of its 17,000 students will return. A fear of COVID-19 in this majority-Black school district is keeping many parents from sending their children back. The disease has disproportionately affected Black populations in terms of hospitalization and death.
“When people are concerned for their safety, they can be more cautious,” Hazelwood Superintendent Nettie Collins-Hart said. There has been “a high rate of anxiety based on the metrics,” Hart added.
Hazelwood has been planning for reopening since last summer, but the rates of new COVID-19 cases in the district have often been some of the highest in the region.
“COVID numbers are a major part of our decision-making,” Collins-Hart said. “Everyone’s sentiment is yes, we want to go back when it’s safe.”
A study recently published by Washington University showed that COVID-19 transmission is rare in schools when masking, social distancing and contact tracing are used.
The research was part of a collaboration involving Washington University School of Medicine in St. Louis, the federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, the Missouri Department of Health and Senior Services, the Missouri Department of Elementary and Secondary Education and others.
To increase awareness in the Hazelwood community about the importance of masking and social distancing, the district has been sharing videos and articles on its website and social media.
COVID-19 vaccination has also been a key concern in some Black communities. Many are skeptical about being injected with a vaccine due to a history of people of color being medically disenfranchised and even used for medical experimentation.
To address this distrust, Hazelwood School District’s communications director, Anthony Kiekow, recently posted a video in which a Black physician specializing in infectious diseases answers questions from Hazelwood parents about the safety of COVID-19 vaccines. Dr. Matifadza Hlatshwayo Davis, of Washington University and John Cochran VA Medical Center, tells viewers to rely on trusted sources such as doctors and the CDC, rather than turning to social media for information. Davis explains how the vaccines work and describes her own mild symptoms after getting the vaccine.
Deciding whether to be vaccinated is an individual choice, she says in the video, but adds, “I just encourage you to not allow the abhorrent treatment (of people of color in the past) … to prevent yourself and your family from being vaccinated.”
For parent Brittney O’Connell, the first day of kindergarten brought nervousness and relief. Her daughter finally got to meet her classmates in person on Monday, after almost eight months of seeing them on a computer screen.
“When we got the news about going back, it was a no-brainer. All I want is for her to learn and gain experience in school,” O’Connell said.
Her daughter, Kinslee White, attends Lawson Elementary.
“It was a struggle,” O’Connell says of having her daughter learn at home. “We had good days, we had bad days. There were things she really struggled with — she’s more of a hands-on person. When you sit down with her one-on-one, she gets it. It’s not easy for kids to evaluate what they’re looking at on the screen.”
She said the days seemed extremely long. “Paying attention, staying focused was the biggest struggle. They’re not used to being on the computer for so long,” she said.
O’Connell worked from home three days a week to accommodate her daughter. The other two days Kinslee went to her former day care, where she sat at the computer most of the day and wasn’t able to get as much one-on-one attention from an adult.
O’Connell is putting that in the past. “I can’t wait to pick her up and see how her day went. I’m glad she gets to go back in the building and experience some sort of normal.”