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Citing Low Coronavirus Risks, St. Louis County Schools Welcome Back Young Students

Children arrive at Hancock Place Elementary School, Sept. 23, 2020. The south St. Louis County district brought students in kindergarten through second-grade back five days the week, following advice from local health officials. Hancock Place will soon bring older elementary students back.
Ryan Delaney
St. Louis Public Radio
Children arrive at Hancock Place Elementary School on Wednesday morning. The south St. Louis County district brought students in kindergarten through second-grade back five days a week on Sept. 17, following advice from local health officials. Hancock Place will soon bring older elementary students back.

Updated Sept. 24 at 7 a.m. with the addition of Affton's return plan

Several school systems in St. Louis County are beginning to welcome elementary school students back to the classroom after months of virtual learning due to the coronavirus pandemic.

Officials in Clayton, Ladue and other county districts made the decision after St. Louis County Public Health officials said that younger childrenaccount for relatively few of the new coronavirus cases. At least 10 of the county’s school districts are now welcoming students from pre-kindergarten to up to eighth grade back this fall — with most going as old as second grade — up from just two at the end of August when the school year started.

School officials, teachers and pediatricians have argued that for younger children, virtual learning can cause educational and psychological harm.

“There is a risk, and obviously we know that COVID presents a situation that's unlike any other,” said Kevin Carl, superintendent of Hancock Place School District, one of the first districts in the region to bring back younger students. “At the end of the day, I think that it's a greater risk to keep kids out of school, because especially with our youngest learners … it's so critical to engage them in person.”

Hancock Place has brought kindergarten through second grade back five days a week. Soon, third through fifth grades will be able to come back to school.

Elementary school is where children learn to socialize, Hancock Place kindergarten teacher Aimee Mueller said.

“Now that I have them in person, I just feel like I can do a lot more with them,” she said. “And they can be a lot more successful that way.”

Early childhood researchers say keeping young children isolated at homecan harm them socially and emotionally, and that can outweigh coronavirus concerns. They say early elementary students are the age group that has the toughest time successfully completing virtual schooling.

Dozens of pediatricians from Forest Park Pediatrics in St. Louissupported a return to in-person learning in a public letter last month.

“Thus far, the data continues to support that children are not the primary spreaders of COVID-19,” they wrote, adding that many children are forced to go to day care even if in-person school isn’t in session. “If regional data and trends permit businesses to be open, schools should also remain open.”

But not all doctors agree that children should go back to school.

Available research does show that young children are less likely to get very sick with the virus and less likely to spread it to others, said Dr. Sarah George, an infectious disease specialist at St. Louis University. But even children without symptoms have been shown to transmit the coronavirus to others, she said.

“Probably the risk is lower with first grades than it is with adults or adolescents, but it’s certainly not zero,” she said. “Mathematically you can’t be certain that it also won’t produce an increase in the number of cases.”

A child may transmit the virus to a parent, who could infect an older family member at risk of serious complications if they get sick, she said.

“You cannot make this a no-risk situation while a pandemic is going on,” George said.

Pattonville schools welcomed children in pre-K to second grade back this week.

“When I think back to the beginning of last school year, was it different? Absolutely,” said Superintendent Tim Pecoraro. “But since it's been nearly six months since we've had kids in our schools, it felt normal.”

He said the district is doing what it can to keep students and staff healthy through hygiene and distancing measures.

“We know that when we bring students and staff back, it increases the likelihood that there'll be COVID cases in our schools,” he said. “One of the things that we want to do is make sure we're doing the right things to mitigate the spread.”

On Wednesday, St. Louis County Executive Sam Page expanded his recommendation for kids returning to school, saying the county’s health officials now feel it’s safe for middle school students to be in classrooms. Later that day, Affton announced it'll bring K-8 students back two-days a week beginning Oct. 13. Jennings began the year with all grade levels having an in-person option.

St. Louis Public Schools Superintendent Kelvin Adams this week proposed a return for children in kindergarten through second grade on Oct. 19, but the school board has not approved the proposal.

SLPS and the two largest charter school networks in the city continue to offer virtual lessons for all grades.

Follow Sarah on Twitter: @petit_smudge

Follow Ryan on Twitter: @rpatrickdelaney

Ryan was an education reporter at St. Louis Public Radio.
Sarah Fentem is the health reporter at St. Louis Public Radio.