Mehlville students are all back in school for five days in person

Substitute fill rates, rates of transmission are examined

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By Erin Achenbach, Staff Reporter

A lower COVID-19 transmission rate in the St. Louis region and declining case averages have paved the way for Mehlville School District students to attend class five days a week in person, and with more teachers vaccinated the district is looking forward to someday stopping masks.

Mehlville and Oakville high school students started attending class in person five days a week April 19, thanks to vaccinations and those lower transmission and positivity rates.

Despite delivering good news to the Board of Education Feb. 25 in both positivity rates and substitute teacher fill rates, Superintendent Chris Gaines cautioned that there are still quite a lot of unknowns. The district held a two-part vaccination drive in March and April for staff.

“So there’s a big question mark there,” said Gaines. “We don’t know how long we’re going to continue to have to wear masks, we don’t know how long we may have this continued quarantining. … Our goal is to get everybody back to five days a week, not wearing masks, not having to worry about social distancing. … I’m not going to say ‘when do we stop

washing our hands?’ because we should probably just wash our hands like all the time anyways.”

Gaines explains rationale behind four days, quarantining

Students at both Mehlville High School and Oakville High School began attending class four days a week in person in March.

Board President Kevin Schartner asked at the time what the rationale was for keeping middle schools and high schools at four days a week instead of a full five days.

Gaines said that four days a week was the preferred model in many districts for a variety of reasons, and that part of the reason Mehlville chose that route was due to feedback from the district’s Return to School Committee and administration.

“Many districts have done it because of the way they have structured their virtual component. For us, it’s really been about our Return to School Committee advocating to use Mondays to ensure that they’re connecting with students in quarantine. … There was also a desire to keep some weekly staff development because we had eliminated our half days for the remainder of the year,” Gaines said. “Another thing that we heard … and we experience it some weeks and some weeks we don’t, is that Mondays really help with contact tracing from the weekend.”

Board Vice President Peggy Hassler said she had heard from other parents in the district that students in quarantine were falling behind their in-class peers.

“I’ve heard a lot of complaints that kids have class on Tuesday and literally nothing to do on Wednesday, class on Thursday, literally nothing to do on Friday. Or kids that are quarantining aren’t able to see in the classroom at all or be involved,” Hassler said.

“We have taken a position of not requiring teachers to teach both in-person and students to connect virtually. Some teachers have done that on their own,” said Gaines. “Administratively we were not going to require to do both because from the districts that were doing it, that tried that at the beginning of the year, it was wearing teachers out. … It’s been the biggest challenge. Everybody, all the districts — how to continue to deliver instruction to students virtually has been one of the biggest challenges during this whole process.”

“The people that have reached out to me were very, complimentary of everything that’s gone down so far … I don’t want this to be all negative … I don’t even intend for it to be negative. … Hopefully the solution in the future is we end all this,” replied Hassler.

Data is behind decisions

The district has been tracking several metrics since last summer to help inform its decisions on when to bring students back to school, including using data from the Harvard Global Health Institute, the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and the St. Louis County Department of Public Health.

“We can see what’s happened since we’ve been tracking this since August —  but more recently, if we look at this month — most metrics have been moving in a favorable direction,” said Gaines. “The Harvard Global Health piece is something that we paid a lot of attention to and it’s based on community spread.”

Mehlville decided last August to begin the school year entirely virtual for all students before bringing elementary students back for part-time in-person classes in September, followed by other schools. High schools returned in person for two weeks in November before staffing shortages forced a return to virtual learning.

Mehlville fell behind other districts on in-person learning due to those staffing shortages, but as of February was back in line with most districts, Gaines said.

“One of the biggest challenges we faced was workforce sustainability and substitute teacher fill rate, and that is some really good news,” said Gaines. “As a general rule we’ve been above 80 percent, and the last few days have been a good sign.”