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New Coronavirus Cases Force Some Schools To Return To Online Learning

Sasha Walchli works with English-language learners at Green Trails Elementary School in the Parkway School District in 2018.
Sasha Walchli works with students at Green Trails Elementary School in the Parkway School District in 2018. Green Trails is one of the schools where students and teachers have been quarantined.

After a big push to get students back to in-person learning, some St. Louis school districts are seeing an increase in coronavirus cases.

In an announcement Tuesday, Parkway School District Superintendent Keith Marty acknowledged troubling data: Over 300 students and 80 teachers and staff members are currently in quarantine due to possible exposure to coronavirus. Of the district's 23 elementary and middle schools, 22 have reported at least one positive case.

“As we speak, we have contact tracing occurring,” said Marty, to track down anyone who may have been in contact with the 42 confirmed positive student cases and 16 positive teachers across the district.

During the last few weeks, Parkway transitioned its elementary and middle school students to a hybrid model—with groups of students alternating between learning in person and at home.

Marty said that besides the number of students currently quarantined, he thinks the hybrid model is performing well. But the district has paused plans to bring back those younger kids full time, opting to keep the blended approach through November.

Parkway’s high school students will still shift from all-virtual to hybrid learning next week. But the rise in cases throughout the schools isn’t isolated, as the community also faces an uptick.

“I believe every one of our ZIP codes has now turned red,” Marty said, “which means the transmission is at a level of concern. That was — a month, six weeks ago — looking much better.”

Marty added that having enough teachers on hand could also prove challenging if the rise continues, as substitutes are in short supply.

Elsewhere in the region, a shortage of teachers led Crystal City School District to shut down in-person learning for two weeks.

“You know once you have a student quarantined, and a classmate gets quarantined, there may be a teacher and a paraprofessional in there and then those two get quarantined,” said Crystal City Superintendent Matt Holdinghausen. “And you’re trying to find a replacement for them, and we just didn’t have the people to replace all the staff.”

Nearly 400 students in the Crystal City district, or 80% of the student body, had been attending in person four days a week since August. But two teachers tested positive last week, along with one student, forcing the district to shutter school buildings until mid-November.

“We want our students in school. I think face-to-face instruction is the best way to learn,” Holdinghausen said. ”We’re trying to allow our students back; we just had staffing issues due to quarantine.”

As the region sees coronavirus numbers continue to rise at an alarming rate, school districts will likely continue to face these challenges into the winter —especially those with little room for error.

“We had a good plan in place. We prepared for this just in case this would happen,” Holdinghausen said. “As a small district there’s just not a lot of cushion when things all go wrong at once, like they did here.”

Follow Becca on Twitter: @itsreallyflick

Becca is an intern with St. Louis Public Radio.