There’s rising doubt among school leaders that their students will return to school this spring.
Most schools in the St. Louis area are closed through April 3, for now, to help contain the spread of COVID-19, the illness caused by the novel coronavirus. That date is starting to feel like just a placeholder for a more sustained closure.
As educators scramble to set up for remote learning and figure out the logistics of providing support services, such as meals, two school districts in Warren County announced on Wednesday night they won’t re-open at all this spring.
“The decision to close our school district was extremely difficult and made out of an abundance of caution for our community,” said Gregg Klinginsmith, superintendent of the Warren County R-3 school district, in a letter. “We know closing our schools will have a significant impact on our families, but we also believe that strong, urgent action must be taken to prevent the spread of this virus and to protect lives.”
Wright City R-II’s school board voted to keep schools closed through the rest of the school year, following a recommendation from the county’s health department to keep schools closed for at least eight weeks.
All 555 of the state’s school districts and charter schools had closed or announced closures by Thursday afternoon.
Missouri Gov. Mike Parson has abstained from ordering schools closed, or dictating for how long, as the governors of Kansas and Illinois have done. Parson has cited the need for the decision to be made at a local level and expressed concerned about strain on rural families.
“A lot of these school districts don’t have day care, for one,” he said. “A lot of these schools are the main employer of those areas and those towns and everything. To me, it was the obligation to leave that to the local levels to decide how they would manage that.”
It’s also possible, however, that Parson lacks the direct authority to force schools to close. According to state statute, “in a statewide pandemic, only the director of the Department of Health and Senior Services or the director’s designated representative shall have the authority to close a public or private school or other place of public or private assembly.”
The health director, currently Dr. Randall Williams, is appointed by the governor. A spokesperson for the Missouri Department of Health and Senior Services did not respond to a request for comment.
In the meantime, there’s little uniformity among schools about when closures start and when they could end.
“I don’t think there’s any chance” of kids coming back to school, one superintendent told St. Louis Public Radio on the condition of anonymity, citing a desire to not speak out of line with other school leaders in the region. “I think we’re done for the semester.”
Another superintendent instructed students to pack up for spring break last Friday with the expectation they won’t be returning to school.
School leaders publicly are hedging and planning for all scenarios. Normandy Superintendent Charles Pearson said his district is in phase one right now, getting kids set up to learn online for the next three weeks. They’re also planning for a phase two, when distance learning is a sustained reality.
Area superintendents plan to hold discussions with health officials later this month to assess the ability for school to resume.
The situation is “really going to have to change so that we’re turning in the right direction,” said Ladue School District Superintendent Jim Wipke. “Unless things change, it’s not looking real positive.”
Schools sent students home with as many school supplies and lesson packets as they could, or have arranged for students to come and pick up computers or textbooks. Teachers are frantically trying to design and upload virtual lessons.
The most immediate hurdle for schools to clear is making sure students continue to be fed. Schools have announced pick-up locations for meals or identified drop sites using school buses.
But another round of difficult decisions is ahead.
The Missouri Department of Elementary and Secondary Education canceled state standardized testing; Advanced Placement and college entrance exams have been postponed. Seniors are wondering if their prom dresses or graduation gowns will ever be worn. Parents are trying to figure out how to become teachers.
DESE is continuing to fund schools, a department spokeswoman said, and districts have announced teachers will still be paid.
The idea of using summer school or starting next year early has been floated by some educators, but there is little bandwidth yet to think that far into the future. Under normal education policy, summer school can’t count as required instructional time.
“Obviously, we’re not in traditional times,” said Mallory McGowin, DESE communications coordinator.
The state education department issues waivers for schools that can’t complete testing or finish a school year, usually because of a natural disaster that may affect a few schools or a county. It’s unprecedented for the entire state to not finish the school year.
An elementary school principal in north St. Louis County, who was not authorized to speak to the media, has deep concerns about learning loss for students and other ripple effects since it’s likely unrealistic to make thousands of students repeat a grade level.
In a mix of optimism and warning, educators are pointing out that prolonged school closures will expose just how much they do to care and provide for children beyond academics. While it could offer an opportunity to reimagine everything from virtual learning to the social support network, “I fear we won’t take the opportunity,” the principal said.
St. Louis Public Radio reporters Jaclyn Driscoll, Jason Rosenbaum and Sarah Fentem contributed to this story.
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