© 2020 St. Louis Public Radio
Play Live Radio
Next Up:
0:00
0:00
Available On Air Stations
Education

Back-To-School Without Some Of The Traditions But Lots Of New Protocols

Students arrive for the first day of school Aug. 24, 2020, at Duello Elementary School, in Lake St. Louis. Wentzville is one of the few St. Louis-area school districts to open in person. It'll offer in-school instruction two days per week.
Ryan Delaney
/
St. Louis Public Radio
A parent helps her child apply hand sanitizer as they arrive for the first day of school at Duello Elementary School in Lake St. Louis. Wentzville is one of the few St. Louis-area school districts to open in person. It'll offer in-school instruction two days per week.

The first day of school can be a little bit about showing off: new sneakers, a new backpack and this year … a new mask.

When a kindergartner approached Duello Elementary School Principal Danielle Todd on the first day of school Monday morning, she earned bonus points for a school-themed mask.

“You’re a rock star, you know that?” Todd said, commenting on all the school-related things on the student’s mask. “I love it.”

Wentzville’s 17,000 students are some of the first and the few in the broader St. Louis region to return to school in person. It’s an experience that’s being missed for most public school children and parents in St. Louis and St. Louis County.

Parents and district staff dropping kids off at Duello said this first day of school feels different but still contains all the normal energy of past years.

“This summer has been exciting; it’s been hectic,” Todd said.

She’s added spare masks and hand sanitizer to her yellow fanny pack along with her keys and phone.

The resumption of in-person learning comes after what some educators are calling the longest summer break students have ever had. Schools first closed because of the pandemic in mid- to late March.

“That’s a very, very long time,” said Wentzville Superintendent Curtis Cain. “Once we have a firm understanding and feel in terms of where students are, we’re absolutely going to progress academically.”

The rapid shift to remote learning in March exposed, and in some cases widened, the vast resource gap in public education, as children with special needs and in low-income districts struggled to get students online daily to complete lessons.

Districts that are staying remote as the school year begins pledge that the instruction will be more robust and that digital gaps have been closed.

Back in July, most area public schools planned to offer in-person instruction. But a high rate of virus infection forced many districts to revert to distance learning or a hybrid of in-person and virtual. Wentzville made a late shift from students being in school five days a week to just two.

Students arrive for the first day of school Aug. 24, 2020, at Duello Elementary School, in Lake St. Louis. Wentzville is one of the few St. Louis-area school districts to open in person. It'll offer in-school instruction two days per week.
Ryan Delaney
A Duello Elementary School student stops in front of the school at a hand sanitizer and mask station on the first day of school. Wentzville School District is requiring face masks for children in third grade and up while strongly encouraging them for younger students.

As children and parents arrived at the elementary school in Lake St. Louis, some stopped for photos in front of the school or to help their children at a hand sanitizing station; disposable masks fluttered from hooks above the pump bottles.

Class sizes will be kept in the single digits. The district is requiring those in third grade and up to wear face masks while encouraging it for younger students. There are plexiglass barriers up in parts of the school, Todd said, and some instruction will happen outside. Also, drinking fountains have been replaced with individual water bottles.

The back-to-school supply list now includes paper towels, Clorox wipes and hand sanitizer. Parents toted bags of the cleaning supplies behind their children.

Connie Barker said her daughter, who’s starting fifth grade, could barely sleep the night before school. She brushed her hair this morning and cooked her a good breakfast.

“They’re super nervous because of the virus,” Barker said. At the same time, she said, they were ready to be back in school since they’ve been out since March. Barker was not scared about her children returning.

“It was actually just like a normal day,” she said.

Students arrive for the first day of school Aug. 24, 2020, at Duello Elementary School, in Lake St. Louis. Wentzville is one of the few St. Louis-area school districts to open in person. It'll offer in-school instruction two days per week.
Ryan Delaney
Connie Barker takes a photo of her children, Isabella and Liam, in front of Duello Elementary School in the Wentzville District. Barker said her daughter was nervous about returning to school.

Some district parents protested the move to implement a hybrid learning model, asking the administration to offer more days in school. Other parents, and teachers unions, have voiced opposition to schools reopening.

Fifteen Wentzville high school students tested positive for COVID-19 even before reaching this first day of school. Students at all three of the district’s high schools caught the virus through extracurricular activities, including football and band. The district worked with the county health department to contact trace and contain the outbreaks, officials said.

At Duello school, Aliece Barklage dropped off her daughter for first grade and son for kindergarten, though she wasn’t allowed past the front entryway. “Of course it’s different,” she said about the starting school experience compared to last year.

Barklage’s children will attend school Monday and Tuesday, then will learn from home the three other days of the week. They’ll try to mirror their in-school routine as much as possible.

“We’re going to do the best we can, and I’m sure we’re going to fail and stumble along the way, but we’re going to make the most of it and try to have as much as fun as possible,” she said.

Superintendent Cain, who has two children in the district, said it was strange to not walk his youngest all the way to the classroom door.

“That’s just a tradition,” he said. “I have every confidence we’ll return to that sooner rather than later.”

Send questions and comments about this story to feedback@stlpublicradio.org.