South St. Louis County News

St. Louis Call Newspapers

South St. Louis County News

St. Louis Call Newspapers

South St. Louis County News

St. Louis Call Newspapers

Mehlville looks at how to return to school during a pandemic, possibly with rolling closures


Online-only update: Since this article was published, Mehlville announced a new virtual school option, Mehlville@Home. Read more here

As the start of school looms in August, the Mehlville School District is considering three different options about what the return to the classroom might look like for students in the fall.

Mehlville’s school buildings have been closed since March after COVID-19 started spreading across both the region and state. Students began to “distance learn” from home virtually, with plans to return in April, but the continued pandemic and St. Louis County stay-at-home order ultimately forced students to finish the year at home.

“Sometimes I joke that this is about almost all we’ve done since March 9. This has been our primary focus since then. I also talk to people about figuring our way through this spring and how we’re gonna re-enter in the fall is probably the most complicated and complex problem most of us will deal with in our lifetimes,” said Superintendent Chris Gaines during the May 21 Board of Education meeting, which was held virtually. “We use data the best we can, we use guidance from professionals as best we can and we just continue to ask people to do their best in some very challenging and unusual circumstances.”

The district has a committee working on what school in an unknown future could be like. The group is taking into account guidance from the Centers for Disease Control, which says that screening, training for employees and students on hygiene and social distancing are key to potentially returning to school.

“There was a major, major focus on the screening piece,” said Gaines. “We’ve been really talking and thinking about if all kids were back and if all employees were back, how do you screen 11,000-plus people each and every day, and what could that look like.”

The CDC released an updated one-pager May 19, and Gaines said they were trying to use that document to guide the district’s decision-making process.

Thus far, the state has not issued any formal recommendations for how districts should handle the return to school in the fall nor has St. Louis County, but Gaines said the district will continue to follow the guidance of county health officials.

“At the end of the day, when we go back to March and all along the way, we’ve really followed the guidance from county health and they will continue to be our primary source to help us make this decision,” said Gaines. “The county districts have been collaborating… We’ve been meeting about once a week on that and talking about different plans and different scenarios. All of those scenarios include social distancing as part of that.”

Gaines told the board that there were three different scenarios the district is examining, the “best-case scenario” which would be in-person school for a majority or all of the year, the “worst-case scenario,” where school would open virtually and be virtual for much or all of the school year, and a “hybrid scenario,” which would see rolling closures throughout the year.

“Most people think this is probably the most likely scenario, is that there’s gonna be rolling closures throughout the year,” said Gaines. “So there’s going to be periods where we’re in person and there’s going to be periods where we’re at home and kind of moving back and forth.”

The State Board of Education also granted districts the option to start earlier than the original Aug. 25 start date to provide more options for districts that lost months of in-person learning, but Gaines said Mehlville will most likely stay with the original calendar.

“My concern is a lot of people lost the opportunity to travel over spring break and people are kind of sick and tired of being at home… So if people have the opportunity to travel, I think they’re gonna go,” said Gaines. “We’ve been saying for a long time that school will start on Aug. 25. I think we have a number of families and employees that have planned around that start date, so I think to try and move it up two to three months is probably ill-advised at this point.”

A committee meets weekly to discuss what reopening could look like, with three subgroups assigned for each different scenario — Assistant Superintendent of Supervision of Schools Jeff Bressler heads the in-person subgroup, Assistant Superintendent of Teaching and Learning Brian Smith heads the virtual small group and Executive Director of Student Services Adam Smith and Executive Director of Planning and Development Chad Dickemper oversee the hybrid subgroup.

Although nothing is formalized yet, Gaines said most districts in the region were planning on having back-to-school plans finalized by mid-July.

“By and large, county districts are trying to collaborate on those kinds of things as much as possible and trying to keep from surprising one another in that regard,” said Gaines.

Other departments in the district are also grappling with what the return to in-person school could look like.

Katie Gegg, director of school food and nutrition, said that her department is working with the committees on what safeguards would need to be in place to protect both students and food employees.

Paul Westbrook, director of technology services, also told the board that the technology department was working on how to improve remote learning practices should the need arise again in the future. Every student already had a Chromebook laptop, but some changes are happening to that 1:1 program due to the possibility of virtual learning. Beginning in the fall, kindergarten through middle school students will begin taking devices home with them each night, joining high-school students who already take their laptops home.

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