Affton School District will start school year entirely virtual

Affton School District will start school year entirely virtual

By Erin Achenbach, Staff Reporter

The Affton School District will begin the fall semester with 100-percent distance learning due to the COVID-19 pandemic, the district announced Saturday. 

The Affton Board of Education voted unanimously 6-0 at a board workshop Saturday in favor of beginning the semester with 100-percent virtual learning at least through the first quarter of the school year, which ends Oct. 23. Board member Kenny Edgar was absent. 

Cases in St. Louis County have spiked so much in recent weeks, with the largest single-day totals seen since the start of the pandemic, that County Executive Sam Page issued seven business restrictions Monday to combat higher hospitalization admissions. Unlike the earlier wave of the coronavirus in April and May during the county’s stay-at-home orders, the latest cases have also been seen in young people, with Page taking the step of shutting down youth sports for more than 10 on a team last week. 

Page has encouraged all parents to choose their district’s all-virtual school option, and he said Monday he doesn’t believe that schools will open in person this fall. 

The Affton Board of Education usually holds an all-day, weekend board workshop each summer. 

“Last week, Monday through Saturday, is when we were doing a big push to gather input and feedback from staff and parents. That was a very intense week of listening, people filling out surveys, in-person meetings, webinars. Really trying to gain as much information as possible,” said Superintendent Travis Bracht in an interview with The Call on the district’s decision. “I read a lot of comments from parents and emails that they were struggling with the decision and didn’t know what the right thing to do was, so they appreciate the school district weighing in and helping out.” 

In data presented to the Board of Education, 1,022 students had selected in-person schooling, while 906 opted for virtual, with 75 percent of total students reporting. The district felt that the numbers were close enough to opt for entirely virtual to start. 

Bracht also added that with the way cases were trending in St. Louis County, he didn’t feel “comfortable about where we may be in a month. … There was also the anxiety and build up to the first day of school from a kid and staff perspective if things continued to get worse.” 

Affton joins other school districts in the St. Louis region such as Hazelwood, Ferguson-Florissant and Ritenour that will begin the school year with 100 percent remote learning, and it is the first South County district to make that decision. Some county districts, including Lindbergh Schools, Rockwood and Fox, released plans July 20 calling for partial in-person learning two days a week, while the Mehlville School District and Bayless Schools are still undecided

Affton’s decision to begin remotely boiled down to the questions and concerns received from parents and staff about in-person school versus virtual learning, Bracht said.

“Seventy percent of questions were about in-person learning, from health and safety to masks. The questions were all over the board. We were really struggling with ‘How are we going to get acceptable answers to all of those questions with the way things are trending?’” said Bracht. “We felt more comfortable finding answers to the questions about virtual learning. Not as many, more concise and it gives the staff the ability to have decisive answers. These answers will not have to change regardless of circumstance.” 

Like Mehlville and Lindbergh, Affton had already decided to offer a 100-percent remote option for families. Students who are enrolled or choose to enroll in Affton’s online learning option will remain remote through the 2020-2021 school year, regardless of whether there is a return to in-person schooling. Families who opt for in-person school will be remote at least through the first quarter, with a return to classrooms to be determined as the coronavirus situation progresses. 

But either way, the virtual schooling option will be an improvement on what families encountered with the emergency situation in the spring, when teachers and students were unprepared for learning to suddenly take place entirely at home. 

“If you remember back to how we ended last school year, that is not at all what we aspire to do. We aspire to have a school year that starts with true engagement in academics, a set schedule every day that parents and kids can count on,” said Bracht in a video released by the district July 25. “That schedule will involve interaction directly with your teacher. That will also involve meaningful assignments.” 

Students will use the computer to get “cues” on what they need to complete, but virtual learning will not consist entirely of being in front of a screen for hours a day.  

“We are going to build in a schedule that in some areas there is flex time to be connected to an elective or getting them up and moving. If they know what supplies they need now that we have a definitive decision on how we are going to start school, parents will get a supply list for at-home learning,” said Bracht. “So if you have these supplies we’ll give choices either to complete an assignment … make something … hands-on things where students are getting away from the computer but still having structure, so it’s not just kids left up to their own devices.” 

Affton already has 1:1 devices with Chromebooks for all its students, kindergarten through 12th, and many students already have their laptops home with them from last school year. Some kindergarten students through second-grade students didn’t have access to their devices at the end of the last school year, so Bracht said the district will probably hold some kind of drive-by pick-up for those students to get their devices. Students who also may not have access to WiFi wireless internet can request a hotspot. 

To make virtual learning more uniform this upcoming year, Affton also made the decision to use one centralized system, on which staff members have been receiving tutorials. Now that the decision has been made to start entirely remote, tutorials and modules will be tailored to help teachers get better at that specific thing. 

Other training will include how to structure a virtual school day, how to come across as a friendly and caring staff member when you can’t be in the same room with students and how to be responsive. 

Theoretically students could end the semester in school. Bracht said he hopes to make a definitive decision on that at least a month before the second quarter begins. Only students who originally opted for in-person school would return physically — students who originally opted for Affton’s virtual learning academy will remain virtual at least through the semester. 

“I can’t stress enough how this has been an extremely difficult decision. I can’t tell you how much we tried to look at it from every scenario. There is really no way to tell someone they are right or wrong, and that is why we are doing everything we can to help parents,” said Bracht. “We will do what we can to work together. … That’s our commitment going forward.”