Jessica Belle Kramer
Due to the rise in COVID-19 cases in St. Louis County, the Hancock Place School District will begin the 2020-2021 school year 100-percent virtual, the district said Tuesday, after initially announcing that it would offer a five-day-a-week in-person option.
The Lemay school district’s decision will be re-evaluated after the first quarter, which ends in October.
When Hancock Place first announced its reopening plans for Hancock Elementary, Hancock Jr. High and Hancock High School July 20, it was one of the only districts in St. Louis County to say that it would keep a schedule of five days a week of in-person learning, along with a fully virtual option for students to start due to the pandemic.
But unlike other districts in the county, Hancock’s physical attendance option, termed “Plan A,” would have consisted of five days in-person, as opposed to the decision by districts like Lindbergh and Rockwood that are planning a “blended” approach to the return to the classroom, with two days a week of staggered in-person attendance by 50 percent of students at a time and three days a week of virtual learning.
But as cases and hospitalizations continue to rise and St. Louis County has taken extra measures to prevent the spread of the virus, most county districts – including Affton, Kirkwood and Parkway – have announced in recent days that they will begin the school year 100-percent online.
Hancock is only the second of the five South County districts to decide to go all virtual. Lindbergh has not announced a change to its “Green Light” hybrid plan, and the Mehlville and Bayless boards meet Wednesday night to decide.
“Due to the continued increasing spread of COVID-19 in the region, and guidance from the St. Louis County Department of (Public) Health, consultation with local medical experts, discussions with other area schools and following the approval of the Hancock Place Board of Education, the District will begin the year 100% in a virtual format,” Superintendent Kevin Carl said in a letter sent to district parents Tuesday.
The Hancock Board of Education held a special meeting Monday to approve the decision to begin the school year under the “Plan B” 100-percent virtual option.
When the district first disclosed its reopening plans in July, it cautioned they could change before the scheduled first day of school Monday, Aug. 24.
“The safety and health of our employees and our students and our community are always going to be No. 1. So keep in mind we may have to shift,” Carl said at the time.
In videos announcing Plan A, Carl had said that Hancock’s small size put it at an advantage when it came to a face-to-face reopening, because unlike other districts Hancock’s schools have enough space to separate students through social distancing. The downward trending enrollment over the past decade helps, although under normal circumstances that “might not be an ideal situation, but in a COVID-19 world having ample space is really to our advantage.”
But even with more space for students than other schools have, the district reversed course and opted to go with Plan B because of the rising number of cases outside its walls.
“In order to contain the spread of the virus, we simply cannot engage in face-to-face learning in a high-quality way under the increased numbers of COVID-19,” the Aug. 4 letter said. “Additionally, current CDC (Centers for Disease Control) guidelines state that schools should make decisions based on the level of virus transmission in the local community, which is currently at an all-time high.”
Of the 635 students who registered after the initial plans were released, 50 percent opted for in-person learning while 50 percent opted for virtual. The district has just over 1,400 students.
Under Plan A, students who choose the virtual learning option would have been using online learning platform Edgenuity for lessons; however, under Plan B, all students will be assigned and connected virtually to a Hancock teacher.
To accommodate the change, the first day of school will also be pushed back to Monday, Aug. 31 to give families, students and staff additional time to prepare for the online start.
“The delay in starting online by one week is in order to give our teachers an extra week of Professional Development to have more time to prepare for online engagement,” the letter said. “We realize this will be a disappointment for families who chose the in-person experience. It is disappointing to us as well. We worked extremely hard to find a way to bring students back in our building and had established protocols to do so.”
For the in-person option, schools would have been fogged and sanitized daily, with masks required for all staff and students in fourth grade and above, in addition to barring visitors from the buildings.
“We remain committed to getting students back in the schools as soon as possible, because that is where they thrive the most,” said Carl. “We do not have an exact timeline of when coronavirus will allow us to reopen our schools again so we are tentatively planning for virtual school through the first quarter, which ends in the middle of October.”
As outlined on Hancock’s “virtual campus” website, students will be required to check in daily with their teachers. The learning management system “Canvas” will be used to better the virtual learning experience. Lindbergh also uses Canvas.
One difference from the Plan A virtual learning option compared to Plan B is that grades will be on an A to F scale for the 2020-2021 school year. Under Plan A with Edgenuity teaching, grades for virtual learners in middle school and high school would have been on a pass/fail scale, and would not have counted toward students’ GPAs.
The district will provide iPads for students in kindergarten through first grade and will provide Chromebook laptops for students in grades second through fifth. Middle school and high-school students will also receive Chromebooks.
Virtual learning will require home internet access. Families that do not have home internet access are encouraged to contact the district to check out a free mobile hotspot.
“Our fully online programming is not homeschool. Homeschool requires the parent to provide the entire curriculum as well as instruction,” the district said. “Our fully online program uses the … district … approved curriculum, that is fully aligned to the Missouri learning standards and national standards where applicable.”
Even as school in Lemay itself goes virtual, daily grab-and-go meals will also be distributed at Hancock Elementary and Hancock Jr. High for families who need them during the school year. Sign-up is required.
Both the Mehlville School District and Bayless School District boards of education will be holding special meetings tonight, Aug. 5, to vote on return to school plans. It is expected that Bayless will vote to begin the semester 100-percent virtually like Hancock and Affton, also with an Aug. 31 start date.
Outline of the original plans
If Hancock can switch to in-person school after the first quarter, students would be physically present in school five days a week if they choose that option. An entirely virtual option would still also be available for students and families, elementary through high-school level. Preschool programming would only be offered face-to-face.
If that becomes a possibility, Carl and Assistant Superintendent Tim McInnis outlined what physical school would look like with COVID-19 and social distancing.
“We’ve done a lot over the summer to make sure that our schools are more safe by reducing our class sizes, spreading our students out and eliminating … things we don’t need in the classroom so we can properly distance,” said Carl. “We’re a small district, and we have ample room within our buildings. … We’re in a position unlike many school districts here in the St. Louis area, so we’re looking forward to that opportunity to welcome your children back should you choose to send them.”
For those who opt to return physically to the classroom, students in fourth grade through high school will be required to wear masks, as well as employees. Parents will be expected to conduct daily temperature checks and wellness checks of their children before sending them to school. Teachers and other school staff will also be expected to complete daily wellness checks and temperature screenings.
McInnis encouraged parents to either use their own transportation to bring students to school if possible or allow students to walk to school.
Bus transportation would still be available similar to prior years and if riding a bus, all students regardless of grade level will be required to wear a mask. Students will also fill seats from back to front and will be in assigned seats.
“We’ve received the feedback from our parents over the summer, and we know that transportation is an important part of getting our children to school. We are going to ask, however, if there’s any way possible for you to provide transportation for your child, or allow your child to walk, that you really consider those options,” said McInnis in the reopening video. “We will be running our buses and … every student will be expected to wear a mask, again for the safety and wellness of others.”
Hancock Elementary School students who attend in-person schooling will not be allowed to enter the school until 7:55 a.m. Breakfast and lunch will be eaten in individual classrooms to encourage social distancing. Students will then be dismissed straight from their classrooms at 3:05 p.m.
Middle school and high-school students who return to in-person will not be able to enter their respective building until 7:25 a.m., where they will report directly to their first-hour classroom. Grab-and-go breakfast will be provided in different locations for students on their way to their first-hour classrooms. Pick-up locations will depend whether they are bus riders, car riders, drivers or walkers.
Student lunches at both Hancock Junior High and Hancock High School will also be planned for appropriate social distancing. Middle-school students will either eat in the cafeteria, band/music room or available classrooms. High-school students will eat in either the cafeteria, dome, library or lower gym. No additional travel will be allowed during lunch.
All schools will have building-wide intensive fogging and sanitizing daily. High-traffic areas will have increased cleaning and sanitizing throughout the day.
If students physically return to classrooms, families will also have the option to choose virtual learning, which will be different than the virtual learning that the school year will start with.
Hancock Elementary students who opt for virtual learning while physical school is in session will be required to complete daily video lessons in reading, writing and math, as well as an art, music or physical-education class. Science and social studies will be incorporated into reading and writing for grades kindergarten through second, with additional lessons for grades 3 through 5. Elementary students will be expected to engage in a minimum of two to two-and-a-half hours a week of screen time, not including homework, independent study or question and answer time with teachers.
Parents of elementary students will be required to contact their student’s assigned teacher weekly. Grades will be assigned in a traditional format.
“We’re going to need considerable partnership between you and the school. … The younger the child, the more assistance they will need,” said McInnis. “Option 2 (virtual learning option) requires a commitment from the student, the parents or guardians and the school district.”
For virtual learners in middle school and high school, the platform Edgenuity will be used when school is physically in session at Hancock.
Middle-school students can expect two-and-a-half to three hours of daily screen time, while virtual Hancock High students can expect three to three-and-a-half hours of daily screen use, said McInnis, although that does not include additional homework, study or question-and-answer time.
All online learners in middle school will be required to enroll in math, English language arts, science, social studies, physical education and one elective. Hancock teachers will be directly assigned to monitor student progress and answer questions.
High-school students enrolled in virtual learning must enroll in six different courses with Edgenuity. Students will be able to choose from courses that meet the state’s graduation requirements.
Virtual students in both middle and high school will be assigned pass/fail grades for each course based on their progress with Edgenuity. Pass/fail grades will not factor into a high-school student’s GPA.
“One thing at all grade levels that I want parents and guardians to remember is that our online programming is not like what we did from March until May. Your child is going to be learning their various course and curriculum competencies from start until finish,” McInnis said. “There will be daily contact from your teacher to ensure that the student is staying current with objectives in the courses … again this is nothing like March until May. This is a commitment, a daily commitment and we urge you take this into consideration.”
If school is in physical session too, students in all grade levels, online or in-person, will be able to participate in co-curricular and extracurricular activities, which will be conducted using social distancing guidelines. Sports will be offered based on guidance from the county Department of Public Health, Missouri State High School Activities Association (MSHSAA) and best practices, officials said.