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How A St. Louis School Made In-Person Learning Work, All Year Long

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Provided by Jonathan Butterfield
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Jonathan Butterfield's school, whose students include three of his own kids, survived a year of in-person education during the pandemic.

On May 19, students at Lutheran High School South celebrated their final day of the 2020-21 school year — and unlike for most of their peers in St. Louis County, that milestone marked an entire year on campus. Last August, while most other local secondary schools remained virtual or at most provided a hybrid option, Lutheran South offered all of its 430 students in-person classes five days a week.

And the Affton school made it through the year without any unscheduled closures — and without a single instance of on-campus COVID-19 spread, said Principal Jonathan Butterfield.

“A lot of people were saying it couldn't be done,” Butterfield said on Wednesday’s St. Louis on the Air. “And, truth be told, we didn’t know with certainty either, of course. But we knew what we do is too important to simply do on a screen, so we did everything we could — and it worked.”

Butterfield noted that the school did arrange to take a week off from in-person classes after both Thanksgiving and spring break, and that “was probably a good move, because a few of our students did become positive.” But with masks required and distancing implemented whenever possible, “overall, everything went just really well.”

That included not just class, but sports and even prom: “Our kids were able to enjoy almost everything that makes an overall high school experience awesome at Lutheran South.”

A 430-Student Experiment in Affton
Jonathan Butterfield described on air what he learned during this unusual year

Looking back to the year’s anxiety-filled beginning, Butterfield said, “I don’t question anybody for questioning us at the time, because no one really knew the right answer.” But, he continued, “now that we know more about COVID, I think the safest place for our kids was possibly at school.”

And that, he said, is due to the well-documented mental health struggles many students face being separated from their peers, even as the vast majority of children and young adults did not suffer serious illness from COVID-19.

“Our counselors reported that our kids came back to school last fall in much worse position than they even thought,” he said. “But within the first month back at school, every kid, the needle was moved extremely positively in the right direction. Parents said: ‘We have our kids back. This is what they needed. They need to be in person.’”

Butterfield previously joined St. Louis on the Air in August to discuss his school’s then-daring plan to open for in-person education and checked back with us as things got underway in October, along with Jennings Superintendent Art McCoy, another superintendent who bucked the trend by offering in-person education throughout the early months of the pandemic. Jennings moved to virtual learning in late November as cases surged in the area, but returned to the classroom in the new year. McCoy has also been an outspoken advocate for the need to keep kids on campus.

Butterfield said enforcing distancing was probably the hardest thing as far as students were concerned. “Teenagers are huggy,” he said. “And I think high school boys are the biggest culprits, honestly.”

He acknowledged that teachers are looking forward to not teaching to a camera next year, calling it “the toughest year for probably every teacher in the world, in their entire career.” The school did offer a virtual option throughout the year for students who wanted it, but found that most preferred to be in person, and that teachers did too.

“The face-to-face communication is certainly the best way to do education,” he said.

His takeaway from this most unusual school year? “The courage to take calculated risks when stakes are high.”

He said: “We knew how important the overall high school experience is for kids — it’s so much more than just academics, but the relationships and the memories and the mentoring and the role modeling, those are things that you don’t get back. It was just too important. … There’s no way we would have done it differently.”

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 Lara Hamdan. The audio engineer is Aaron Doerr.

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Sarah Fenske joined St. Louis Public Radio as host of St. Louis on the Air in July 2019. Before that, she spent twenty years in newspapers, working as a reporter, columnist and editor in Cleveland, Houston, Phoenix, Los Angeles and St. Louis.

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