Growing number of schools are going virtual as COVID-19 cases surge

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AS THE DAYS tick down to the start of the school year, and area COVID-19 infections continue to rise, at least 20 area school districts have announced plans for an all-virtual start to the school year.

By TIM ROWDEN
Managing Editor

With area COVID-19 infections on the rise, nearly 20 school districts across the region have announced plans for an all-virtual start to the school year.

St. Louis County Executive Sam Page, in a July 30 press conference,  recommended all schools start the year in “as virtual of an environment as possible,” noting that the recent surge in infections is expected to last for several more weeks.

Missouri joined 20 other states last week designated as a “red zone” for rapid spread of the virus, according to a new report from the White House that urged tighter restrictions in transmission hot spots.

In the last three weeks, St. Louis County accounted for more new cases of the virus than any other county in the state, according to the report. Jackson County, which includes Kansas City, was second, and St. Charles County was third.

ST. LOUIS AREA SCHOOLS
The Affton, Brentwood, Clayton, Ferguson-Florissant, Hazelwood, Kirkwood, Maplewood-Richmond Heights, Parkway, Pattonville, Ritenour, Valley Park and Webster Groves school districts in St. Louis County and KIPP and Lift for Life charter schools in St. Louis have all already said they will offer online-only classes for the first quarter.

St. Louis Public Schools also will start online for the first quarter, following a recommendation from Superintendent Kelvin Adams. The Hancock Place School Board was scheduled to meet Monday, after Labor Tribune press time, to vote on a recommendation from Superintendent Kevin Carl to start the year online.

The region’s largest district, Rockwood, plans to bring students into classrooms at least two days a week.

JEFFERSON COUNTY
In Jefferson County, the Fox, Festus R-VI, Hillsboro, Northwest and Windsor school districts are offering parents and students the option to return to in-person classes or opt for online classes. The DeSoto school district planned to open in-person, requiring students to use hand sanitizer and wash hands when entering the buildings and encourage, but not require face coverings.

ST. CHARLES COUNTY
In St. Charles County, the Fort Zumwalt, Francis Howell, Orchard Farm and Wentzville school districts were prepared for full in-person or hybrid schedules, depending on health guidance.

METRO EAST
In the Metro East, at least four districts — Cahokia, East St. Louis, Granite City and Waterloo — have announced an all-virtual start to their school year.

Missouri teachers concerned for safety of students, educators

The Missouri National Education Association last week released results from a survey of 24,270 Missouri educators, who expressed strong concerns about keeping students safe, a lack of specificity in local district plans, stress at home, and paying out of pocket to purchase personal protective equipment (PPE).

Educators are seeking more training in virtual instruction, the union says, but are optimistic about their schools’ preparations for virtual education.

“No one wants our students back in schools more than educators, but we must prioritize student and educator safety,” said Phil Murray, a Poplar Bluff teacher and president of the Missouri National Education Association. “Wednesday, Missouri was tagged as a ‘red zone’ state by the White House’s Coronavirus Task Force. Our state is experiencing a startling rise in new cases of COVID-19 among children and college-aged adults, accounting for 22 percent of cases just weeks before schools and colleges begin instruction.”

SAFETY SHOULD GUIDE DECISIONS
Among the key findings from the survey:

Safety should guide district decisions: 78.6 percent of Missouri educators said districts should not rush to meet an arbitrary opening date but instead should focus on opening when safe.

Educators want a voice in reopening plans: 77.8 percent of Missouri educators think they should have a say in approving in-person instruction plans.

Educators are skeptical about the availability of PPE: Only 4.8 percent of Missouri educators strongly believe their district will provide appropriate and adequate PPE.

Safety plans lack clarity: Only a handful of educators (1.6 percent) strongly agree with the statement: “There is a clear plan and the physical space to ensure adequate social distancing.” Only 3.7 percent say their school has clear safety protocols.

Districts spent the summer preparing for virtual education: 72.1 percent of educators agree that their school district has the resources to ensure that every student can access learning materials for remote instruction.

Educators are digging into their own pockets for necessary cleaning and PPE supplies: An overwhelming number of educators (80.4 percent) expect to spend personal funds on essential cleaning supplies and PPE for themselves and students.

“Local districts experiencing increased cases of COVID-19 should use this time to prepare for virtual instruction, create engaging lessons and ensure equity of access to remote learning materials,” said Murray.

“A rushed reopening where elected officials insist children are ‘gonna get over it’ puts students, educators, parents, and families at risk,” he said. “As educators, children are at the center of every decision we make. Now is the time to focus on keeping them safe, nurturing their love of learning, and crafting robust plans for returning to in-person instruction when COVID-19 cases recede.”

A complete summary of the survey with graphics and regional results is available at: https://bit.ly/MNEASurveyResults.


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