Mehlville asks for more masking so that district can bring students back to school

District uses signs to spur more mask usage in area

Above+left%2C+Rogers+Elementary+first+grader+Dominic+Vallejo+works+at+school+wearing+a+mask+Dec.+16+as+school+signs%2C+right%2C+ask+the+community+to+do+the+same.+

Above left, Rogers Elementary first grader Dominic Vallejo works at school wearing a mask Dec. 16 as school signs, right, ask the community to do the same.

By Erin Achenbach, Staff Reporter

The Mehlville School District hopes to bring back elementary school students to five days a week in person and high school students back part-time in the second semester, but the district is appealing to residents for help with that by masking and social distancing to keep cases of the COVID-19 pandemic down. 

The second semester starts Jan. 19. Students are slated to return from winter break — which began Dec. 22 — Tuesday, Jan. 5.

High school students in the district have been attending school 100-percent virtually since the start of the pandemic in March, aside from a brief two-week window in the fall when students returned part time.

After starting virtually, elementary and middle school students have stayed in the hybrid/blended model of instruction, which switches half the students out for two days of in-person instruction per week, with virtual instruction at other times. 

Superintendent Chris Gaines said at a Board of Education meeting last week that Jan. 5 is a “long ways out,” so the district can’t promise anything.

“We refrain, or try to refrain, from making decisions that far out in advance. As of today, we don’t see any immediate changes” by Jan. 5, Gaines said Dec. 17. “We think that once we come back and we’re able to see another 20-plus days of data that we’ll be able to make a better decision … about what might be possible for the second semester” and expanding in-school options. “It’s what we hope we can do. We’ll see where the data leads us over the next few weeks.”

The district hopes to make a decision by Jan. 8 to allow at least 11 days to prepare.

Although surrounding school districts are in school more, those districts don’t have rates of cases as high as Mehlville’s ZIP codes, which have ranked the highest in St. Louis County for transmission for several months.

On Dec. 15, the district posted photos on its Facebook page of the letterboard signs at Forder, Hagemann, Rogers and Blades elementaries, all with messages encouraging the community to wear masks so students can return to school full-time.

“To bring us back safely, one must wear a mask,” said the sign at Blades Elementary, referencing “The Mandalorian” TV show. “This is the way.”

The Rogers sign said, “Help bring us back. Wear a mask. We can do this!”

It is impossible to look at returning students to classrooms through one “lens” because best practices and guidance from various institutions, including the Centers for Disease Control, the Harvard Global Health Institute and the state Department of Health and Senior Services, all vary in their recommendations, Gaines said.

“The question every day is what guidance do we use? If we follow the Harvard Global Health model … we should be under stay-at-home orders and remote learning for everyone through that lens and that lens only,” said Gaines. “If we look at the CDC, our community is at the highest risk for transmission. … We don’t know if someone is going to change the guidance again. I’m guessing they will at some point.”

The timeline for when school employees could be vaccinated for COVID-19 is unknown, although Gaines told the board he expects it will be late January or early February. Even then, successfully rolling out the vaccine is a puzzle, and the masking and quarantine policies don’t seem like they’ll change any time soon. And the company that administers flu shots in the district appears to be unavailable.

“Are we gonna be able to get them on campus to do these vaccines as well? As of today, we think probably not,” Gaines said. “What’s gonna be any new guidance around vaccines and masks? It doesn’t look like that’s changing right now, and doesn’t seem like vaccines and quarantine may change either.”

The district will begin offering rapid antigen tests Jan. 4 in the parking lot of the John Cary Early Childhood Center for employees displaying symptoms or exposed in the last seven days. Trained Mehlville nurses will administer tests. Employees schedule a time for testing and will not have to leave their cars for the test. Results are ready in around 15 minutes.

The tests are free as part of a grant the district received for 1,100 kits from the state Department of Elementary and Secondary Education and the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services.

“We’re very excited about being able to offer that benefit to our employees,” said Executive Director of Planning and Development Chad Dickemper.

In the meantime, the district will continue with its COVID-19 mitigation strategies, which include “consistent and correct” usage of masks, good hygiene, cleaning and sanitizing, social distancing and contact tracing. The district is seeing “great fidelity” with all of it, Dickemper said.