Missouri school districts struggle to keep classrooms open during COVID-19 surge

School districts in the St. Louis region are struggling to stay open this week amid a staggering amount of illness among students and staff.

The current absentee rate is the most disruptive of the pandemic, administrators said. Yet they are reluctant to move online because of a state rule limiting the amount of virtual instruction this year.

The record omicron wave of COVID-19 hit while schools were on winter break. Since Monday, the lingering illness and quarantines have left school leaders scrambling to fill classrooms, run buses and serve meals:

• More than 240 teachers, or nearly 20%, were absent Wednesday in the Parkway School District. Of those, about half of their classrooms were not covered by a substitute teacher. Student absences in the district’s schools ranged from 13% to 19%. Laptops will be sent home this week for students in kindergarten through second grade in anticipation of possible building closures.

• At Rockwood Summit High School, 16 staff members were absent Wednesday with one substitute teacher in the building. About 17% of students have been absent since Monday, more than three times the average absentee rate. The Rockwood School District has tapped classroom assistants, hall monitors and teachers giving up planning periods to substitute teach.

• More than 5% of staff members in the Mehlville School District and 4% in Hazelwood have active cases of COVID-19.

• A bus driver shortage in Maplewood-Richmond Heights has led to “some stressful and fragile situations” with transportation delays, according to a letter Wednesday from Superintendent Bonita Jamison.

A handful of schools have made the switch to virtual learning this week because of staffing shortages, including Ashland and Bryan Hill elementary schools in St. Louis. At least three in the Normandy Schools Collaborative — Bel-Nor, Jefferson and the district’s early learning center — will be virtual Thursday and Friday, said George Barnes, assistant superintendent for elementary education.

“I know we think teachers are superheroes, but they get sick and also their family members get sick,” Barnes said. “It’s a tough phone call because you can hear it in their voice. They want to be here for the kids, but they just can’t.”

Before the pandemic began, Missouri instituted a new rule for alternative methods of instruction, allowing for 36 hours of virtual learning in place of snow days or other emergencies. The rule was made more flexible during the 2020-2021 school year, when some districts including Ferguson-Florissant and Hazelwood spent nearly the entire year online. This year, the original rule is back. Districts could lose funding for extended time spent virtually or have to make up in-person hours at the end of the year.

“We have only a mere 36 hours to work with, which is weird to me, but we have to parse those out as best as possible,” Barnes said. “We’re going to figure out a long-term plan because we know those hours are going to be depleted pretty soon.”

District leaders “may have to make the difficult decision to cancel school and make up that time at a later date, if necessary to complete their 1,044 required hours of instruction,” said Mallory McGowin, spokeswoman for the Missouri Department of Elementary and Secondary Education, in a statement.

“We are certainly aware of the workforce shortages cases of COVID and periods of quarantine are creating in public schools, as is the case in many other businesses and industries, and DESE continues to monitor the current situation,” McGowin said. “We know school leaders and educators are doing what they can locally to keep their doors open, knowing in-person learning is often what is best for Missouri’s students.”

Meanwhile, at least 10 private schools in the St. Louis area have temporarily switched to online learning this week. The situation is a contrast from fall 2020 when most public schools were virtual and most private schools were in-person.

On Wednesday, Mary Institute and St. Louis Country Day School became the latest private school to make the move for grades nine through 12 because student absenteeism “well exceeds the pre-pandemic threshold for outbreaks of flu and other illnesses that would warrant a short-term shut down,” according to a letter from Scott Small, head of upper school.

Of the 73 total cases of COVID-19 among MICDS high school students this year, 62 have been reported since Monday, according to the school’s dashboard.

Lutheran North High School also moved online, along with at least eight local Catholic schools — Sister Thea Bowman in East St. Louis; Assumption in O’Fallon, Missouri; Christ Prince of Peace in Manchester; St. Louis University High School; St. Roch in St. Louis; St. Alban Roe in Wildwood; St. Joseph in Cottleville; and St. Patrick in Wentzville.

Across the country, 4,561 schools have been shut down this week for pandemic-related causes, according to the data tracking site Burbio.

At least six school districts in the Metro East have switched to virtual learning after the winter break, including Belleville Township, Brooklyn, Cahokia, Edwardsville, East St. Louis and Granite City. Mascoutah schools will close entirely Thursday and Friday, with the days made up at the end of the year.

“Prior to the holiday break the impact of COVID on our district was manageable, however Granite City, like the entire country, is experiencing a spike in cases,” reads the letter sent Wednesday to parents from Superintendent Stephanie Cann. “This decision will hopefully allow the worst of the omicron spike to pass and reduce our numbers to be manageable as they were prior to the break.”