It's back to classes — online or in person — as plans for spring semester develop

Some students will return to classrooms this month for the first time since March as school districts complete their spring semester plans.

St. Louis Public Schools will reopen its middle and high schools Jan. 11, following a week of virtual learning after the winter break. About two-thirds of students in the district are expected to return to buildings, with the rest staying virtual.

Teachers including Logan Allgood of Gateway STEM High School have questioned the timing because COVID-19 transmission is higher now than when schools initially shut down in March, as well as August when they did not reopen.

“It’s all about the students are falling behind, and they need the in-person learning. I think we need to stop thinking of kids as test scores or a data point,” Allgood said. “My students are scared. I don’t think we should be endangering people just for the sake of having better scores.”

School staff will likely be coming back before having access to COVID-19 vaccines. Under the current distribution plan, teachers in Missouri could receive both doses of the vaccines by March.

Directors of KIPP St. Louis and City Garden charter schools wrote a letter Dec. 18 to Gov. Mike Parson asking for school staff to be bumped up on the vaccine priority list. Teachers are in the second-highest priority group, along with first responders and people at high risk, including anyone age 65 and older.

“Having teachers uninterrupted by class or school closures will allow students and their families to have some form of normalcy. Finding readily available substitutes in areas where COVID-19 infection rates are the highest is an unwelcome challenge,” the letter stated. “This ultimately impacts the quality of instruction for students, who are already in dire need of academic support and access to various services that are found only in schools.”

A shortage of substitute teachers this fall led to temporary shutdowns in several local districts. School districts in St. Charles County have adopted looser quarantine rules recommended by Parson, so students and staff no longer have to quarantine for 14 days if they were wearing masks when exposed to someone with COVID-19 who was also masked.

Parkway Schools Superintendent Keith Marty said the district has tapped into fall 2020 college graduates to increase the pool of substitute teachers. Each school will have two long-term substitutes available daily when Parkway students return at least four days a week starting later this month, Marty said.

“Our mitigation efforts, and those in other school districts, are working (and have) contributed to a low transmission of COVID in schools,” Marty said. “That has not changed even as the community spread has increased. Schools in the region have not been the cause of regional increases.”

Of the reported 232 cases of COVID-19 among Parkway students since November, just 21 developed after an exposure on campus, according to the district’s health dashboard. There have been 208 cases reported among staff members, including 24 as a result of a school contact.

Students and teachers in Mehlville on Friday will learn the plan for spring.

“Our hope is that based on the data on Jan. 8 we’ll be able to make a decision to bring high school back to the blended model at semester and hopefully we’ll be able to bring elementary in five days a week,” Superintendent Chris Gaines told families in a video message last month. “That’s gonna depend on all of us and what we do over the break … What’s been driving the spread of the virus is homes and gatherings within homes.”

Most private schools have held in-person instruction since August, in part because of better access to testing and more space to social distance. At John Burroughs School, students and staff were offered COVID-19 testing on campus ahead of their return to class on Tuesday.

Local universities are also preparing for the return of students after lengthy breaks from in-person learning, since most students departed campuses before Thanksgiving.

Washington University asked its students to “significantly limit their interactions with others in the 14 days prior to departing for St. Louis for the start of the spring semester” later this month. All undergraduate students will be tested for COVID-19 upon return, according to the university’s pandemic plan.

Students living on St. Louis University’s campus are required to get rapid COVID-19 testing prior to move-in.