All South County school districts go virtual, with Lindbergh keeping K-3 in classroom

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Isad Menkovic, a third-grade student at Oakville Elementary, completes a math lesson.

By Gloria Lloyd and Erin Achenbach

All five South County school districts are mostly going virtual to start the school year due to rising cases of the coronavirus in St. Louis County.

Four of the five districts —  Mehlville, Affton, Bayless and Hancock —  will be all-virtual to start. Lindbergh changed its earlier released plan to an all-virtual start for fourth grade through high school, while K-3 students can attend in person.

The Mehlville Board of Education voted unanimously 7-0 at an in-person meeting Aug. 5 to start the 2020-2021 school year entirely virtual. The meeting took place in the William B. Nottelmann Auditorium at Mehlville High School, with seats sectioned off for social distancing, although only one member of the public came to speak.

Every Mehlville student already has a 1:1 laptop, but every Lindbergh student K-12 will also be provided with a district-owned device for use on virtual learning days.

Another change in Lindbergh’s “Green Light Plan” is that all children and staff will be required to wear masks at school, unlike the first version of the plan which said that only those ages 9 and above had to wear masks.

The first day in Mehlville will still be Tuesday, Aug. 25. The board did not include a set end date for virtual learning, with Superintendent Chris Gaines preferring the flexibility to get back into classrooms as soon as possible once transmission rates and positive cases fall to more acceptable levels rather than waiting through a whole quarter or semester. The district will give three days’ notice before switching back to in-school.

Affton, Bayless and Hancock have committed to all-virtual for the first quarter.

The “Lindbergh Green Light Plan” originally released July 20 is a “living document” that can change based on data and cases, Superintendent Tony Lake said. Original plans called for two days of in-person instruction a week and three days of virtual attendance for all students. The two days of in-person attendance allows 50 percent of students to attend at one time for more social distancing.

But cases have continued to rise, with new cases nearly tripling in Mehlville’s three ZIP codes 63129, 63128 and 63125 just in July.

Lindbergh Early Childhood Education opened in person in July at 50-percent capacity and has had only one adult case that did not spread due to masks and precautions. ECE has “successfully implemented procedures for social distancing, face coverings, reduced class sizes and contact tracing,” the district said. Opening other schools to younger students is a “natural progression” from the experience with ECE, but not for older students.

“We now know through scientific research that COVID-19 behaves differently in young children, and that children younger than 10 years old have significantly lower susceptibility to COVID-19 infection,” Lake wrote in an email to parents.

But despite the experience with ECE, Lake said that the district made the decision that older children will stay home “based on local data, consultation with medical professionals and collaboration with the St. Louis County Department of Health.”

Studies have shown that children under age 9 are less likely to get or spread the virus, the district said. But for those 10 and older, the virus spreads the same as it does in adults.

Mehlville had taken a “wait and see” approach since July 20 to study how coronavirus cases continued to trend. The district proposed three possible scenarios depending on the coming weeks: an entirely in-person scenario, a blended option of both in-person and virtual learning and an entirely virtual “connected” model.

At the urging of St. Louis County health officials, most St. Louis County schools will begin the year online, including Kirkwood, Webster Groves, Rockwood and Parkway. Ladue will allow K-4 in person, with everyone else virtual.

“The recommendation from county health is to start with a connected model, the recommendation of the Return to School Committee is to start the year in a connected model,” said Gaines. “The recommendation of the administration is in line with that,” with some in-person support.

“We can only make kids as safe as possible and give them the best instruction we can and keep them safe,” said board member Larry Felton.

Lindbergh said that its decision was made based on the data and “what is best for student and staff health and wellbeing.”

All children do better with in-person school, but that is especially true of the youngest learners, the district said. Those students “rely on the routines and structures of a classroom environment to build the essential foundations of learning.” Younger children are also easier to keep with the same students all day, compared to older students who need teachers from different classrooms who specialize in different subjects.

In a change from how Lindbergh buses usually operate, bus transportation will be limited to elementary students who live more than half a mile from school.

For students attending in person, grab-and-go meals will be available for purchase. Families may view menus and pay online. For students with all-virtual learning, the district will provide curbside to-go meals, but families must sign up.