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Several Area Schools Return To Virtual As Coronavirus Surges Again

Riverview Gardens students listen to a book reading in March 2017.
Ryan Delaney
St. Louis Public Radio
Riverview Gardens Superintendent Scott Spurgeon enters Danforth Elementary School in October 2019. The district is closing its buildings again just a few weeks after reopening because of the coronavirus pandemic.

Updated Nov. 17 with additional school districts

It’s mid-November, well into the second quarter of the school year. But Willow O’Connor has experienced just two weeks of kindergarten.

Willow, who’s 5, is enrolled at Gibson Elementary in the Riverview Gardens School District. Her class started the year fully virtual as nearly all schools in St. Louis County did. But Willow threw temper tantrums and refused to sit for computer lessons, her mother said, meaning she received almost no instruction.

“It was cutting teeth to try to get her on the computer,” Kayla O’Connor said, until Riverview Gardens brought elementary students back Nov. 4. When Willow is actually going to school every day, “she likes it,” her mother said. “Her favorite thing is art class; she gets very excited when she has art class.”

But on Thursday, the district announced classes would return to fully virtual instruction starting today “until further notice.” As COVID-19 cases spike again throughout the St. Louis region, several school districts are reversing or pausing the return to schools that had been underway for the past two months. Others hope extended Thanksgiving breaks will be enough of a buffer.

“Though we recently welcomed students back to in-person learning, the recent and dramatic increase in disease transmission has made it clear that we must pivot in a different direction,” Riverview Gardens said in a statement.

Ritenour will move students in grades 4-12 back online until at least January.

The Jefferson School District in Festus is closing all of its buildings this week through at least Dec. 1, while Edwardsville is closing its high school this week with plans to reopen after Thanksgiving. Mehlville and Wentzville are closing their high schools until after Christmas; Wentzville’s middle schools are closed until Dec. 7.

“We have prioritized keeping our early childhood through eighth-grade students in person as our older students are better equipped to learn virtually without as much supervision. Additionally, our younger students have lower positivity rates than our older students,” Mehlville Superintendent Chris Gaines said.

St. Louis Public Schools, which opened to younger students late last month, will keep buildings closed and provide only distance learning the week after the Thanksgiving holiday. St. Margaret of Scotland, a Catholic K-8 school in St. Louis’ Shaw neighborhood, will be virtual-only for the two days before and the full week after its Thanksgiving break. The Potosi School District is extending its Thanksgiving break by two days. Bayless and Jennings will also close buildings for the week after the holiday.

The Rockwood and Hillsboro districts have warned parents that building closures may be coming. Rockwood is facing “critical shortages in staffing” because of required quarantines, Superintendent Mark Miles said in a newsletter.

“If this continues, these shortages may not allow us to support in-person educational services appropriately in the near future. This is why I’m asking our staff and families to join me in preparing for the future possibility of a short-term return to fully remote learning for students,” he said.

Parkway switched its elementary and middle schools to a hybrid model earlier this month after infections were found in all but one of the district’s 23 elementary and middle schools.

Hazelwood and Ferguson-Florissant have yet to reopen buildings at all this fall. Confluence Academies, the largest charter school network in St. Louis, will keep middle and high schools closed until at least mid-January, though its elementary schools are currently open.

Scientific research continues to show children contract and spread the virus less than adults, and schools have not been proven to cause wide spreading of the coronavirus. Still, cases of COVID-19 among St. Louis County youth doubled between late October and early November, according to the county health department. Older teenagers have the highest test positivity rate of all age groups in the county, though more testing is being done on adults than children.

County health officials said in their biweekly report that the level of testing of teens and children “is not identifying a large enough share of the infected population to bring transmission under control.”

Last week, Missouri Gov. Mike Parson and the state’s education department relaxed quarantine rules for students and staff, saying students and teachers do not have to quarantine following close contact with an infected person if everyone was wearing face coverings.

Teachers unions in the state strongly objected to the announcement as dangerous.

Clayton Superintendent Sean Doherty told district families over the weekend that exposure and quarantine rules in the district will not change, pointing out it “runs counter to current CDC guidelines.”

O’Connor, whose daughter, Willow, is struggling through kindergarten, is “terrified to see what happens” during the second attempt at virtual school. She spent the weekend shopping for school supplies, hoping that making the house look and feel more like school will encourage her daughter to participate.

If it doesn’t work, she and her husband will seriously consider pulling Willow out of school and trying kindergarten again next year.

“I'm afraid that it's going to make her end up disliking school altogether,” O’Connor said. “I'm afraid that she's going to get in her mind that this is just what school is, and this is what it's going to be.”

Follow Ryan on Twitter: @rpatrickdelaney

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