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School districts across St. Louis are taking long Thanksgiving breaks to address stress

An empty hallway at Hoech Middle School on Friday, Oct. 29, 2021, in Breckenridge Hills. The school, along with those within the Ritenour School District, took a day off earlier this school year for mental health purposes.
Brian Munoz
St. Louis Public Radio
In early November, halls at Hoech Middle School were empty when the Ritenour School District took a day off for mental health. Now, other school districts throughout St. Louis are extending their Thanksgiving breaks to address stress.

For more than 70,000 students in the St. Louis region, Monday is the first day of Thanksgiving break. About a dozen school districts extended their holidays to try to address ongoing stress from the pandemic.

“We just felt that it was necessary to just pause for our students’ well-being, for our teachers, our staff well-being and for our overall community,” said Sharonica Hardin-Bartley, superintendent of the School District of University City.

This school year, administrators and staff have faced the return to in-person learning, an evolving health situation and staff shortages. On top of that, students who fell behind during the pandemic are now requiring an extra focus from educators. This has led to increased pressure and stress, said Paul Ziegler, CEO of Education Plus, a group that coordinates resources for schools in the St. Louis region.

“With quarantines and different things where kids may be in virtual environments periodically or in modified situations, that's really been difficult for our school personnel to navigate,” Ziegler said. “There's just been a lot of stress in the environment, as well as this push to try to accelerate learning, to maybe make up for anything that would have been lost last year.”

Districts that have the week off include St. Louis Public Schools, Hazelwood, Ferguson-Florissant, Riverview Gardens, Ladue, Normandy, Clayton, University City, Orchard Farm, Maplewood Richmond Heights and East St. Louis Schools.

“Some of our students have had loss, some of our staff members have had loss due to COVID,” Hardin-Bartley said. “So I think that the normal type of stressors that we would see in a regular school year are just amplified even more due to our current state with COVID-19.”

The University City schools likely won’t need to make up the time, Hardin-Bartley said. That’s because this year, if a winter storm keeps students at home, they’ll be able to go back to virtual instruction. Ziegler said that is the case for many districts in the region.

This comes at a time when mental health in schools is the focus of increased attention and resources. Schools across the country have received Elementary and Secondary Schools Emergency Relief funding. Missouri received $1.9 billion in this funding as part of the American Rescue Plan. Schools can use that money to invest in staff and resources focused on social and emotional health.

“One of the ways that they're using those dollars is to try and address learning loss,” Ziegler said. “One of the things that goes along with the learning loss that we've recognized is the social emotional needs of students.”

Hardin-Bartley said she struggled with the decision to extend the break because she knows parents are hoping for normalcy this school year.

“Our parents need that, they need that consistency for work,” she said. “There's child care that they're navigating. And when we are not in school, those are stressors that we're adding to our families. So that's why it was difficult.”

Ziegler said some districts have partnered with faith-based and community organizations to provide child care during the break.

Follow Kate on Twitter: @Kate Grumke

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