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Ritenour schools close Monday for self-care day for staff and students

Empty desks sit in a classroom on Friday, Oct. 29, 2021, at Hoech Middle School in Breckenridge Hills. The school, along with those within the Ritenour School District, will have a day off Monday for mental health purposes.
Brian Munoz
St. Louis Public Radio
Hoech Middle School in Breckenridge Hills is among those within the Ritenour School District that will have a day off Monday so staff and students can recharge and focus on mental health.

The Ritenour School District is closed Monday so overstressed teachers and other staff can rest and focus on their mental health. The ongoing pandemic and the return to in-person learning have made staff and students more stressed than Superintendent Chris Kilbride has seen in 22 years with the district.

“We're listening to students, staff and families who are telling us that it's extremely difficult to come back in person, to in-person learning, after a year where 3,000 of our learners were fully virtual,” Kilbride said.

Ritenour school buildings will be closed for the day, and employees will still be paid. Staff are encouraged to unplug, practice mindfulness activities and spend some time outside.

Kilbride said stress levels at the district are higher now than they were at this time last year.

“I think the challenge is greater this year because we have more students in-person,” Kilbride said. “The academic gaps are more real this year. … During the pandemic, some of the social skills and the coping skills that kids have, they didn't flex those muscles a whole lot.”

On top of that, a shortage in substitute teachers has meant full-time teachers haven’t been able to use their break times to plan lessons because they are busy covering classes.

This year, Ritenour added 25 staff members, including 18 whose work focuses on social and emotional support.

Martha Piñones, a bilingual counselor at Hoech Middle School’s International Welcome Center, stands in for a portrait on Friday, Oct. 29, 2021, at the school in Breckenridge Hills.
Brian Munoz
St. Louis Public Radio
Martha Piñones, a bilingual counselor at Hoech Middle School’s International Welcome Center, said she is concerned about burnout among staff in the district.

The school year is piling multiple difficult circumstances on educators who were already stressed out, which makes it even harder to regulate emotions, said Martha Piñones, a bilingual therapeutic counselor who is one of the district’s new hires. She hopes Monday will give the school community the chance to adjust and find ways to come back down.

“We're not going to fix the entire world with one day, but it definitely allows us that space to say, what is it that needs to be done for me to be able to be regulated and be down again and to be ready to face what's next?” Piñones said. “If we continue in this way of rolling with the punches, it's only going to lead to more and more stress and burnout.”

Escuche en español:
Martha Piñones comparte consejos para recargar sus baterías

To help recharge on the day off, Piñones suggested staff and students turn off their phones, not look at emails, watch a series on Netflix or go for a drive or walk to see the fall colors in the trees.

Kilbride is also worried about the long-term effects of staff and students dealing with this level of stress.

“The data shows that there are less people that are coming into teacher education programs,” Kilbride said. “That's a concern that I have. As we get beyond the pandemic, are we still going to have a strong pipeline of talent to serve kids?”

The district has a professional development day on Tuesday and will resume classes on Wednesday.

Follow Kate on Twitter: @KGrumke

Kate Grumke covers the environment, climate and agriculture for St. Louis Public Radio and Harvest Public Media.