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Jennings schools fight to stay ahead of omicron surge — and stay in person

Many students have to quarantine for two weeks after a COVID exposure, even if they test negative.
Phil Roeder
More than 5,400 schools in the U.S. were shut down the week of January 3, 2022 from pandemic-related causes, according to data aggregator Burbio.

Despite a number of St. Louis area schools deciding to pivot back to virtual learning after the winter break, Jennings School District Superintendent Paula Knight is determined to keep kids in the classroom.

Jennings Superintendent Paula Knight spent 28 years with St. Louis Public Schools before starting her new job in Jennings this year.
August Jennewein
Jennings School Superintendent Paula Knight will join Wednesday's "St. Louis on the Air."

“I've grappled with this day and night,” she told St. Louis on the Air. “Because we know that some children struggled with the virtual option… but at the same time, I'm looking at those positivity rates, looking at how many kids are actually positive, how many staff members, and there have been instances where I've closed some classrooms.”

At the beginning of the school year, Jennings offered a virtual opening with the assumption it would no longer be necessary by this semester. As the omicron variant has fueled the region’s biggest surge in cases yet, the district has continued the online option. Some additional families have even opted in.

Even so, Knight said, only about 200 kids are now enrolled in virtual classes — a relatively small percentage for the district. Most families are intent on keeping their kids in in-person classes.

“The parents have stepped up because they do want their children in school,” Knight said. “When we were in virtual, they saw their child, or their children in some cases, struggling. [They recognized] that there is no greater instructional practice or learning environment than to be with an actual classroom teacher.”

Along with other mitigation strategies to stop the spread of the virus, Jennings also has a mask mandate. Unlike other districts, the mandate has not been controversial for Jennings parents.

"I sent a message over the break reminding everyone [that] we're coming back in January with masks, and the feedback was positive,” Knight noted. “‘Thank you for ensuring,’ as one parent said, ‘my child's learning will not be interrupted and distracted by someone not having on a mask.’”

Jennings Superintendent Paula Knight joins St. Louis on the Air

Like other local districts, Jennings has struggled this month to keep teachers in the classroom. As of this week, 14% of its teachers are out on sick leave, and 16 classroom teachers have tested positive for COVID-19.

The district responded to the staffing shortage by having arts, music and P.E. teachers step up to take classrooms for the day — or for several days.

“That's what teachers do; they are supporting one another,” she said. “But… this is not sustainable.”

Knight said she hopes to boost the district’s pool of substitute teachers in the coming months. Jennings currently has 14 active substitute teachers. Ideally, they would have a minimum of 30 substitutes.

In addition to Knight, the on-air conversation also included perspectives from several parents and two high school math teachers: Ashley Walsh of Edwardsville High School and Myla Sparks of East St Louis Senior High School.

St. Louis on the Air” brings you the stories of St. Louis and the people who live, work and create in our region. The show is hosted by Sarah Fenske and produced by Alex Heuer, Emily Woodbury, Evie Hemphill, and Kayla Drake. Jane Mather-Glass is our production assistant. The audio engineer is Aaron Doerr.

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Emily is the senior producer for "St. Louis on the Air" at St. Louis Public Radio.