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St. Louis-area schools stretched thin amid wave of COVID-19 absences

The Lucas Crossing Elementary Complex on Thursday, Jan. 13, 2022, in Normandy, Missouri. The school has used all of its annual remote-learning hours designated by the state during the COVID-19 pandemic this academic year.
Brian Munoz
St. Louis Public Radio
The Lucas Crossing Elementary Complex on Thursday in Normandy. The school has used all of its annual remote-learning hours designated by the state during the COVID-19 pandemic this academic year.

The latest COVID-19 surge has hit schools especially hard, leaving districts struggling to staff classrooms.

In Illinois, multiple school districts have moved to some form of remote learning following the winter break, including the Belleville Township High School, Collinsville, Edwardsville and East St. Louis districts. But on the Missouri side of the Mississippi, so far only a handful of schools have gone to online learning.

In part, that's because of a rule limiting Missouri schools to 36 hours of virtual instruction. An emergency provision in the 2020-21 school year allowed schools to use more remote learning, but that was rescinded in July.

In the Normandy Schools Collaborative, leaders are calling for more flexibility in the 36-hour limit as they deal with what they say are serious staffing problems. While some schools have had to go remote, the district has kept others open despite having about a third of staff out, said Phil Pusateri, associate superintendent and CFO in the district.

“We look at some other states where they have the freedom to pivot to remote without these restrictions, and I’ve got to say, I think it would be a lot better for our staff and our students if we had that freedom,” Pusateri said.

One school in Normandy hit its limit on AMI instruction on Thursday, while multiple others are close behind. Schools that have used all 36 hours could have to cancel classes and make up days at the end of the school year, Pusateri said.

The virtual instruction time limit came up earlier this week at Missouri’s Board of Education meeting. During a presentation on COVID-19, Mallory McGowin, chief communications officer for the Department of Elementary and Secondary Education, said that schools are facing real challenges in having enough staff for in-person learning and that “it’s important to revisit this conversation” about the 36-hour limit.

“We still are not seeing widespread issues with that, but it is sometimes very close,” McGowin said. “Each day we're seeing schools barely have enough staff that they need to operate those schools in-person and open safely, so this is a big source of conversation.”

State education leaders did not take any action on the rule.

In-person advantage

There is more than just the 36-hour limit at play, said Paul Ziegler, CEO of EdPlus, a cooperative of about 60 public and charter school systems.

“We know that many of our kids struggled in that virtual environment,” Ziegler said. “It's also, from our pediatrician and infectious disease folks, not the best place for kids, so if we can keep the doors open, I think that's top of mind.”

In the Rockwood School District, students and staff had almost 400 more cases of COVID-19 in the past three weeks than the total number of cases from August through December, said interim Superintendent Tim Ricker.

“This has put a really heavy strain on our organization,” Ricker said. “I mean, it's just, it's really, really, really difficult, and what may be good for one district, may not be good for all districts.”

Administrators have been filling in for sick staff and Ricker said the pandemic has stretched resources thin, but there are no plans for the district to go virtual.

“We want children to be in school five days a week with face to face instruction,” he said. “We think that's the best from a safety standpoint, a health standpoint and as importantly, an education standpoint.”

In the Parkway School District, nearly 20% of teachers were absent from work last week, according to a letter sent to parents. The district’s superintendent warned that staff absences could trigger a temporary shift to remote learning.

“We recognize the significant impact of these decisions, so we are doing everything possible to avoid any closures,” said Superintendent Keith Marty.

St. Louis Public Schools had to shift two elementary schools to virtual learning for a few days last week. And in the Clayton School District, teacher absences have been trending at about twice their normal rate.

Back in Normandy, school leaders are looking for solutions. To avoid having to make up days in June, they are considering purchasing a platform that would allow students to learn online, at school, without being supervised by a certified teacher.

Pusateri is still hoping for a change in the time limit on virtual learning.

“We do hope that the decision-makers at the state level do reconsider that 36 hours,” Pusateri said. “Extending it beyond 36 hours would give us the flexibility and give districts across the state flexibility to determine at a local level what's best for their school on that day if a large number of teachers are out.”

Follow Kate on Twitter: @KGrumke

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