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After Nearly A Year, Virtual School Drags On For Many St. Louis-Area Families

With schools closed because of the coronavirus pandemic, students have had to adapt to trying to keep up with lessons remotely, from living rooms, kitchen tables and bedrooms.
Nat Thomas | St. Louis Public Radio
Schools have not fully reopened, nearly a year after the pandemic first closed them. Virtual school is going smoother, but it's still a drag for many students.

Heather Vogt tries her best every day to keep her eyes on her work and at least one ear on her younger child’s lessons. But that still leaves her older son.

I can't work and split my ears both ways,” she said. “I'm splitting it one way with a kindergartener.”

The kindergartner is Jack, and Vogt’s older son, a third grader, is Benjamin. Both are enrolled in the Francis Howell School District, though they’ve been doing school completely from their St. Charles County home since last March.

It has been nearly a year since the pandemic first forced schools in Missouri to close. And, like Jack and Benjamin, tens of thousands of children have yet to return to the classroom. For many, the long absence is starting to drag down grades and drain their love of school.

Heather Vogt's younger son, Jack, is set up for virtual kindergarten next to where she works from home.
Heather Vogt
Heather Vogt's younger son, Jack, is set up for virtual kindergarten next to where she works from home.

Jack, the kindergartner, likes school, Vogt said. He’s learning to read and count. But he also only had one semester of in-person preschool, so his mom wonders if he’s learning at the right pace.

“We'll see, compared to other students who were in school for kindergarten rather than virtual,” Vogt said.

Benjamin is good about logging onto the computer for school every day. But the third grader has grown quieter and seems reserved during lessons.

I feel like I'm watching his brain atrophy in real-time,” Vogt said. “There will be times where he will not talk or really engage in any capacity for hours.”

Vogt used to be a teacher, and sometimes that side of her comes out as her boys work on school a few feet away. But she’s also tried to balance that with being a mom and understanding the challenges. She tries to break up the monotony of so much time out of school with outdoor playdates and other activities.

Vogt's older son, Benjamin, is in third grade.
Heather Vogt
Vogt's older son, Benjamin, is in third grade.

They seem OK, but I can't think about the long-range effects of this until we're there, two years from now,” she said.

Most of the technological hurdles of virtual learning that were sprung on schools last spring have been worked out. Virtual lessons run smoother.

But school administrators around the country are reporting a sharp increase in the number of students failing classes. Other students have stopped showing up for school or logging on.

Lisa Smith has been able to secure a computer for her fifth grade son from the Riverview Gardens School District in north St. Louis County. That ended the trips to the school to pick up paper packets and sharing her own computer.

A little over halfway through the school year, DeVeon is doing well in school. “He gets good grades, he's doing good,” Smith said.

But she added that he’s not being pushed enough by virtual school, especially since some of his classmates are behind on reading and math.

He'll have no problem with, you know, getting up and doing it. But we do feel like it's not challenging enough,” she said.

Her son also hasn’t had much art, music or phys ed over the past year. Smith said the lessons are often awkward to do from home.

Riverview Gardens opened its elementary schools for a few weeks in the fall but then closed them back down during a virus resurgence. The district plans to bring children back next month. Still, Smith said her son will remain at home.

In Webster Groves, Jennifer Finney’s children, both middle schoolers, are able to do music lessons over Zoom.

My oldest does not like being on Zoom all day, it makes him kind of irritable by the end of the day, as I think adults can appreciate,” she said.

Otherwise, Finney said her kids are content with virtual school. They’re a little introverted, which seems to help.

Next month, the Ferguson-Florissant and Hazelwood districts will reopen their buildings to in-classroom learning. It’ll be the first time in a year that all public school districts in the St. Louis area are offering in-person school.

Webster Groves School District reopened last fall, but the Finneys plan to finish out this school year online.

Jennifer Finney expects her kids will be back in school in the fall.

But I don't know if that's realistic,” she said, or just the easiest thing to focus on.

Follow Ryan on Twitter: @rpatrickdelaney

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