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Hazelwood School District’s use of virtual teachers leaves students in the lurch

Nearly one-third of the students attending the Hazelwood School District are assigned to in-person classes where the teacher is virtual, instructing from hundreds or thousands of miles away.
Thomas Hawk
/
Flickr
Nearly one-third of the students attending the Hazelwood School District are assigned to in-person classes where the teacher is virtual, instructing from hundreds or thousands of miles away.
Tamar Brown, left, is the education advocacy director for A Red Circle. Mike Fitzgerald, right, is a reporter for the Riverfront Times.
Emily Woodbury
/
Tamar Brown, left, is the education advocacy director for A Red Circle. Mike Fitzgerald, right, is a reporter for the Riverfront Times.

This school year, nearly one-third of Hazelwood School District students have been assigned to in-person classes where the teacher is virtual, instructing from hundreds or thousands of miles away. It’s one way the district has responded to an unprecedented teacher shortage.

“They do what's called ‘synchronous learning’ where [the teacher is] live throughout the entire school day, then they're supported by in-person facilitators who are there to ensure that the kids are focused, paying attention, doing the work, off their phones, and don't leave early,” said Riverfront Times reporter Mike Fitzgerald. “Even under the best circumstances, it's very difficult to pull off.”

Fitzgerald’s latest story for the Riverfront Times highlights how the district has utilized the for-profit education company Stride. The teachers and students he interviewed said the arrangement is failing students.

“I talked to one student who wants to go to college, and he's taking a chemistry class. Unfortunately, because it's entirely virtual, he can't touch the things that I was able to touch as a chemistry student in high school years ago, such as beakers and test tubes — all the things that go into that type of learning,” Fitzgerald told St. Louis on the Air. “For him, it's purely rote learning.

"And one other thing to point out about this type of teaching — it's extremely expensive,” Fitzgerald added. “Each Stride class costs $160,000 — that includes the $100,000 or so paid to Stride plus $50,000 or so for the in-class facilitator. That's more than twice what a Hazelwood teacher normally earns with salary and other parts of their pay package.”

After digging through thousands of pages of documents obtained through the Sunshine Act, Fitzgerald estimates that the Stride contract for this school year costs Hazelwood about $8.2 million.

Tamar Brown, education advocacy director for A Red Circle, said she wasn’t surprised to hear Hazelwood has a hard time recruiting and retaining classroom teachers. She knew schools would try to get creative and innovative in addressing the teacher shortage.

“Hazelwood’s back is against the wall, right? This is a serious situation, and they're trying to minimize as much damage as possible. But when we're looking at our students, and we're thinking about, ‘If my child was in that space, what would I want for them?’ It can look negligent because the community had no weigh-in,” she said.

“I think that the district is trying to use funds appropriated from the federal government before it runs out. 2024 is the timeframe, so they're trying to create a solution as quickly as they possibly can. And I think unfortunately, when we make quick investments without really looking at the overall picture, looking at how our students will fare in the long run, it could pose a problem.”

Hazelwood told St. Louis on the Air that the district has not made definitive plans regarding the use of Stride for next year and that the current Stride contract is for the 2022-23 year only.

To hear more about how the national teacher shortage has led to this point and what happens next for students and families at Hazelwood, listen to St. Louis on the Air on Apple Podcast, Spotify, Google Podcast, Stitcher, or by clicking the play button below.

Mike Fitzgerald and Tamar Brown join St. Louis on the Air

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 produced by Miya Norfleet, Emily Woodbury, Danny Wicentowski, Elaine Cha and Alex Heuer. Avery Rogers is our production assistant. The audio engineer is Aaron Doerr. Send questions and comments about this story to talk@stlpr.org

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

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