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Education

County School Districts Navigate Re-Opening In Different Ways

Autumn Baker plays after being dropped off for her first day of pre-K in Affton Tuesday, Aug. 13, 2019.
File Photo | Ryan Delaney | St. Louis Public Radio
Autumn Baker plays after being dropped off for her first day of pre-K in Affton back in August 2019.

Hancock Place School District in south St. Louis County will begin bringing back its high school students starting Thursday.

The district will be one of the first in St. Louis County to attempt in-person learning for its oldest students. Jennings brought back its 9th-12th graders first, Affton plans to bring high schoolers back next week, and Rockwood School District is looking at a mid-November return.

But Hancock Place is not only coming back quickly, they’re coming back five days a week, making them one of the first to have a K-12 student body learning in-person all at the same time.

“Because of the district being small, and having the spacing, we can meet or exceed every health department recommendation to bring kids back and do it in five days,” said Dr. Kevin Carl, superintendent of Hancock Place. “So, if you can do it in five days, for us, it’s why wouldn’t you? ”

Only two-thirds of the student body will be back, he said, while the rest will remain virtual. That ratio is consistent with the lower grades who are already in school.

But elsewhere in the county, some districts are just starting to welcome back those lower grades. And plans for getting older students into the classroom remain works-in-progress.

“At the middle school and high school level, we’re still exploring what that could look like,” said Ginger Cayce, executive director of communications for Kirkwood School District.

“Their schedules are different. And you have to remember they’re content specific teachers at that level. At the elementary school your teacher teaches science, math, reading all in one class. At the middle school and high school level those are content specific,” she said.

Kirkwood will return its kindergarten through fifth grade students in full this week, and approved a plan last Monday to phase in middle schoolers by early November.

That variability among districts—some opening faster, others slower—is due in large part to a decision made by County Executive Sam Page back in August to allow districts to decide for themselves how to bring back students within the county Health Department’s guidelines.

With that autonomy, comes a lot of considerations. School districts have to look at schedules, class sizes, overall enrollment, cleaning schedules, along with parents’ and teachers’ comfort level with returning. And, of course, lots of data on the ever-evolving pandemic.

“Really looking at, with our high school students, what the community data is telling us,” said Hancock Place Superintendent Carl. “So we’ve been tracking really closely, not just what’s going on in the state of Missouri, not just what’s going on in St. Louis County, we really wanted to narrow it down to see what’s going on in our immediate community.”

That community data, while so far positive for Hancock Place, is proving to be the reason some school districts are not in talks to return students.

“One of the data points that the board looked at was the new daily case rate from the past seven days, compared to even the seven days prior to that,” said Kevin Hampton, communications director for the Ferguson-Florissant School District. “In almost all of the zip codes that encompass our school district those new daily case rates had increased by 25% or more.”

Ferguson-Florissant’s school board decided last Wednesday their students are staying virtual—until at least January. The district is one of the county’s largest, and has a high percentage of Black students. Research shows Black Americans are at greater risk of coronavirus complications.

Ferguson-Florissant is joined by other districts, like Maplewood Richmond-Heights and Hazelwood, that also have yet to bring their students back.

While school reopening plans differ across districts, officials across the board emphasized the situation remains fluid.

“There were four pillars to our approach to COVID: safety, schedule, access and support,” Hampton said. “Over all of that, is safety.”

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