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New Semester Will Mean More In-Person Learning Options In Many St. Louis Schools

File photo / Ryan Delaney
St. Louis Public Radio
Students are scheduled to again walk the halls of Lift For Life Academy, which were once part of a bank, in January for the first time since the pandemic forced schools to close.

More St. Louis-area high school students will have the opportunity after the Christmas break to learn from inside a classroom instead of their homes.

That’s if plans from school leaders hold over the next several weeks. Administrators stress that all plans are tentative when trying to run a school district during a pandemic.

Several school districts in the region told St. Louis Public Radio they plan to add or resume in-person learning options for middle and high school students in January, in most cases after an all-virtual buffer week following the holidays.

The biggest change will be for high school students. They've had to endure virtual learning the longest as educators prioritized getting younger children, who struggled the most with distance learning, back in classrooms first. District officials said they didn’t have the staffing necessary to get all grades open.

“In order to keep our elementary schools open, we decided to marshal our resources,” Wentzville Superintendent Curtis Cain said. “So we have literally deployed middle and high school staff throughout our elementary to keep them open.”

Wentzville is one of several districts, along with Parkway, Jennings and Mehlville, that plan to reopen high schools after closing them in the fall. All but one school district in St. Louis County started the year virtually. A drive to bring students back to school that began in August with young children hit a roadblock shortly after Halloween.

In Mehlville, staff shortages also made it too difficult to keep all grade levels open. Superintendent Chris Gaines said he was able to find substitute teachers for fewer than half the open classrooms some weeks, so he made the decision to close high schools again after reopening them just three weeks prior, to consolidate staff.

“We thought that was going to be the best group to push back to remote learning. That way, we can keep the little guys in as long as we could,” he said.

Mehlville has hired about two dozen more subs, Gaines said, after the human resources department “shook the trees.” He’s optimistic high schools will reopen in January as planned, but the final decision won’t be made for a few more weeks.

Some districts, including Wentzville, have taken advantage of a change in quarantine rules the state education department released in November.

Elsewhere in St. Louis County, Ritenour and Ladue school districts plan to open high schools next month for the first time this school year. Ladue Superintendent Jim Wipke said he planned to reopen the high school after Thanksgiving until the virus surged and more staff members were quarantined.

So Wipke delayed the high school reopening. “And then we'll start back with a fresh semester,” he said.

High school students who choose to return to classrooms will likely do so for two or three days per week and attend virtually the rest of the time.

University City will add in-person learning for seventh and eighth grade in January. Meanwhile, some districts — including Hazelwood, Ferguson-Florissant and Maplewood Richmond Heights — have no set plans to reopen for any grade levels.

Many middle and high school students in St. Louis will have an in-person option for the first time in the new year. St. Louis Public Schools, Lift For Life Academy, Confluence Academies and KIPP St. Louis charter schools are among school systems planning to reopen middle and high schools in January for students who want to return.

SLPS families were split nearly 50-50 on whether they’d keep their children virtual or send them to school in the third quarter, a district official said.

High school students report a waning amount of motivation to get schoolwork done and increased levels of stress and depression. Grades have dropped for high schoolers around the country.

“Because your teachers aren't in front of you every day, you don't get to see your peers. So not seeing that every day really puts a heavy toll on your brain,” said Aldo Estrada, a senior at McCluer High School in Florissant. “And psychologically, it doesn't allow you to have the same motivation you had when you physically went to school. All you have to do is turn on your laptop, which isn't that exciting.”

Teachers and district staff are also feeling the strain. Wentzville Superintendent Curtis Cain said many of his employees feel like they’ve already worked a full school year at the halfway point. The winter recess will be extra important this year for staff to have the energy to make it through the spring term.

“I think we need to meter ourselves out a little bit differently,” he said.

Optimism varies among school leaders about whether the spring will go more smoothly than the fall and students will stay in school once they return. “That’s just the conundrum,” Mehville’s Gaines said.

In Wentzville, Superintendent Cain said he’ll take his lessons from 2020: “I just think we need to walk in with the mindset that we didn't control everything in the fall.”

Follow Ryan on Twitter: @rpatrickdelaney

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