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There’s Data, But No Magic Number For When It'll Be Safe To Return To School

Sarah McDowell teaches kindergarteners on the first day of school at Duello Elementary in Lake St. Louis on Aug. 24. Wentzville is one of the few St. Louis-area school districts to open in person.
Ryan Delaney
St. Louis Public Radio
Sarah McDowell teaches kindergarteners on the first day of school at Duello Elementary in Lake St. Louis on Aug. 24. Wentzville is one of the few St. Louis-area school districts to open in person.

When all desks in schools in St. Louis will again fill with children is still anybody’s guess.

School districts in the St. Louis region hoped to reopen their schools in a modified way this week. At least, that was the plan back in mid-July. But most schools reversed course as the pandemic surged in Missouri, making teachers fearful of falling ill and school leaders uncertain they’d be able to keep staff and students healthy.

School boards debated for hours during emergency meetings in late July and early August over whether it was safe to bring students back, throwing up their hands in the face of an unknown pandemic and inconclusive public health research. Most decided to keep schools closed and lessons virtual through at least the end of October and hope things improve by then.

“It’s exhausting to try and keep track of all the different pieces to make decisions about when and how to bring kids back best,” said Paul Ziegler, executive director of EdPlus, a collaborative of public school systems across the St. Louis region.

In the weeks since the sands shifted on how the school year would begin, EdPlus worked with area health officials on a way to present metrics to school leaders to track trends in the pandemic both within their school districts and across the region.

But there is no obvious benchmark for school leaders to use to decide whether it’s safe for teachers and students to be in classrooms together. Different comfort levels for virus spread and differing levels of resources to keep class sizes small and classrooms clean will likely mean there won’t be a simultaneous return to school for all children.

“I don't know what that magic number is,” Joseph Davis, superintendent of Ferguson-Florissant, said about different health statistics he reviews. “If it's not zero, how close to zero do we want it?”

Trying to get clarity has been frustrating, Maplewood Richmond Heights Superintendent Karen Hall said, as health officials also struggle to stay on top of the virus.

“They have gone back and forth in terms of what they’ve recommended,” Hall told her school board Aug. 20.

A spokesperson for the St. Louis County health department said it expects to finalize indicators in partnership with schools soon.

Until then, EdPlus is tracking three publicly available statistics: the daily rate of new coronavirus cases, the percentage of tests that come back as positive and the infection rate. On EdPlus’s guide, a test positivity rate above 10% is deemed the red zone. Below 5% is in the green territory. Educators will also look at whether the number of daily new cases is falling over the course of two weeks and if the infection rate is below 1, meaning each new infected person passes the virus to fewer than one new person on average.

The rate of COVID-19 tests coming back positive statewide is around 12%. In St. Louis County, it has fluctuated between 8% and 10% for most of the summer. That's in the yellow zone but still a stat that’s too much to stomach for most school boards and administrators in the county, hence the majority of their schools are closed.

But schools in neighboring St. Charles County are open in a hybrid setting, despite a positivity rate at or about 10% across the districts. St. Charles County’s health department recently started breaking down virus statistics by school district boundaries at the request of educators.

Among data worrying to some educators, the rate of new infections among adolescents and teenagers is the highest for all age groups in St. Louis County. Children under 9 have the lowest rate of infection.

Many school administors are data wonks, studying test scores and attendance rates. But, as they’ve pointed out repeatedly over the spring and summer, they’re not epidemiologists. And while education is a structured environment, with class schedules and grading rubrics, administrators feel at a loss of control watching the battle between science and politics play out.

Whether virus numbers fall to levels deemed safe for in-person learning, Hall told board members, “depends on what the broader community does.”

Follow Ryan on Twitter: @rpatrickdelaney

Ryan was an education reporter at St. Louis Public Radio.