Mehlville and Oakville high schools return to all-virtual learning due to rise in COVID-19

An+Oakville+High+School+student+sews+during+class+as+students+returned+for+two+weeks%2C+before+the+announcement+that+they+will+return+to+all-virtual+learning+until+January.+

An Oakville High School student sews during class as students returned for two weeks, before the announcement that they will return to all-virtual learning until January.

By Gloria Lloyd, News Editor

Mehlville and Oakville high school students will return to all-virtual learning Monday, Nov. 16, the Mehlville School District announced Thursday in an email to parents. Superintendent Chris Gaines said the decision was made as St. Louis coronavirus cases rise to the highest levels seen so far in the pandemic, especially in Oakville and its surrounding ZIP codes, including Concord and Arnold.

High schoolers at MHS and OHS just started back in person Oct. 27 after starting the school year all-virtual. They had not attended the high schools in person since March when schools initially shut down due to the COVID-19 pandemic. Some students were already committed to attending all-virtual school through the new virtual learning academy Mehlville@Home.

Lindbergh Schools Chief Communications Officer Beth Johnston said Thursday that there are no current plans for Lindbergh High School to return to all-virtual, but Lindbergh Superintendent Tony Lake has said that plans could change at any time throughout the school year.

Amid the rising numbers, St. Louis County Executive Sam Page said Thursday that he will issue new COVID-19 restrictions Friday.

Oakville, Arnold and Concord/Mehlville were identified as the ZIP codes with the highest number of new COVID-19 cases for the last two weeks by the St. Louis Metropolitan Pandemic Task Force. 

“The numbers are higher, it doesn’t take much to get you a lower week over week count but the numbers still are high,” Dr. Alex Garza, head of the task force, said at the Nov. 2 briefing after singling out Oakville, Arnold and Mehlville as the region’s ZIP codes with the highest number of new cases.

In the days since, the St. Louis region has broken nearly all records for COVID-19 cases and hospitalizations, setting new peaks for daily hospitalization numbers and the seven-day moving average of hospitalizations. An official from the hospital that primarily serves South County, Mercy Hospital South, said last week that the hospital is filled nearly to capacity, with nurses and doctors stretched to the limit trying to treat COVID-19 patients. 

In a video, Gaines said the district tentatively plans to keep high school students in all-virtual school until Jan. 5, when they could return to buildings in the hybrid/blended model of part-time in school. But for now, lower grade levels will stay in the hybrid/blended model that keeps them in school buildings two days a week and in virtual learning for other days.

“No changes to elementary, no changes to middle school, but we are making a change to high school,” Gaines said.

The change to high school could help the district keep younger students in school in person, because resources can be devoted to elementary and middle schools instead of high school. In the email, Gaines said, “Our team of educators and support staff have been working tirelessly to ensure the safe return to school for our on-campus learners. However, as both positive cases and the numbers of exposed students and staff continue to rise, we are struggling with workforce shortages. We are concerned about our ability to sustain safe levels of staff at each of our schools. This transition allows us to deploy more resources to elementary and middle schools to support continued in-person learning.”

The district tracks a number of statistical measures surrounding COVID-19 cases in its ZIP codes, and the rise in both cases and positivity rate has been alarming, he said in the email to parents.

The superintendent said he started noticing a rise in cases the first week of October during a cold spell. But the cases have hit new highs since Halloween.

“At Halloween, the gatherings that folks had both indoors and it looks like outdoors really pushed the cases up, just skyrocketed in cases,” Gaines said. “What we’ve found when we talk to our infectious disease consultants — where you gather, whether you gather and what mitigation strategies in place really does matter in how the virus will spread. Schools are not the superspreaders largely because of the mitigation.”

Mehlville has had to close many classrooms, but so far has not had to shut down a full building due to COVID-19 while students were in attendance. At least one school was shut down over the summer due to employee cases. Earlier in October, nearly half the students at Washington Middle School were told to stay home after an outbreak that involved positive cases in four students and three staff members.

This is a breaking news story. Check back for updates.

Read Gaines’ full letter to parents below:

Dear Mehlville School District families,

We have reached concerning new records for community spread of COVID-19, and we feel compelled to make some difficult decisions. Starting Monday, Nov. 16, our high school students will transition back to Plan C: Connected, our virtual model. We anticipate keeping high school in the Connected model until Winter Break. Middle schools, elementary schools and early childhood programs will remain in Plan B. Please watch the video I have recorded for you.

After watching COVID-19 cases slowly decline from mid-August through the first week of October, cases began to rise again. We are now seeing sharp increases in both our positive cases and our positivity rates, two of the key metrics we have been following.
 
Additionally, we are seeing shifting guidelines from the state and the St. Louis County Department of Public Health. We are working through how those changes impact our operations, but we’re also anticipating additional guidance from St. Louis County in the coming days.
 
Our team of educators and support staff have been working tirelessly to ensure the safe return to school for our on-campus learners. However, as both positive cases and the numbers of exposed students and staff continue to rise, we are struggling with workforce shortages. We are concerned about our ability to sustain safe levels of staff at each of our schools. This transition allows us to deploy more resources to elementary and middle schools to support continued in-person learning.
 
We have prioritized keeping our early childhood through eighth-grade students in person as our older students are better equipped to learn virtually without as much supervision. Additionally, our younger students have lower positivity rates than our older students.

I want to thank you for your continued flexibility, grace and support as we’ve worked to respond to changing levels of COVID-19 transmission in our community. We are making the best decisions possible given each week’s new set of circumstances. We do not take lightly the impact these decisions have on our students and their families. We know you will have questions about this transition. High school students and families can expect to receive additional information from their schools and teachers in the next few days.