With students in and out of school, teachers still worried despite air quality upgrades

Teachers object to returning as cases rise in community

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An Oakville Elementary student the first day of school.

By Erin Achenbach, Staff Reporter

The Mehlville School District is trying to make the return to schools safer for students and staff by upgrading air quality, but some teachers are still nervous about teaching in person during the COVID-19 pandemic.

The Board of Education unanimously voted Sept. 17, before students returned, to spend $200,000 in leftover contingency funds and upgrade air quality with roughly 40 ionizers, or about two per school. Installing the highest quality air filters — as some private schools have — would have cost more than $2 million, but Superintendent Chris Gaines proposed the lower-cost alternative.

Students all returned by October, but high school is reverting to virtual (see Page 7A). Roughly 2,000 of the district’s 10,000 students are enrolled in the all-virtual academy Mehlville@Home and will not return in person.

Mehlville National Education Association President Deana McKelvie read emails from teachers that outlined their fears about returning to in-person learning as the virus continues to rage during public comments at the Oct. 15 board meeting 10 days before high schools returned to buildings for two weeks.

“I’m afraid to speak up and I’m afraid if I speak up I will lose my job, but more than that I am afraid of getting COVID. Siblings of COVID-positive students are still attending school in my building. Students show up to my classroom with symptoms, our custodial staff does not have time to sanitize all the spaces and our building is not even up to capacity with all our students back,” McKelvie read from an anonymous elementary teacher’s email. “It’s impossible to teach lessons when students are worried about things they cannot control or understand. I am defeated. I need to be alive to do my job and my students need to be healthy and feel safe to learn.”

McKelvie said the teacher’s feelings are common among the district’s teachers: “I get emails like this every day. I just want to make sure you knew what teachers were thinking right now.”

Communications Director Jessica Pupillo said administrators have been trained in contact tracing from Johns Hopkins University and ask siblings of students who have tested positive to stay home if they’ve had any contact.

The extensive contact tracing and all-hands-on-deck approach required by COVID-19 has taken all the time of district officials.

“We felt like we went in 2020 with a plan of what we were going to be doing all year, and we got shot right in the eyeball on that one,” said Gaines.

Consultants provided four options to improve Mehlville’s air quality through its existing HVAC units: upgrading to superior filters, adding HEPA filters, UV sanitization or ionization.

When it comes to upgrading the air conditioner filters, “part of the problem is it’s such an upgrade it’s the difference between breathing through a T-shirt mask and breathing through something significant … It’s gonna put a strain on our systems to pump air through them. Plus they’re expensive,” said Gaines. “So that’s probably not a viable solution for us. … HEPA filters present the same type of challenges in terms of air flow through the filter. … UV is really expensive and … they have a relatively short life span and it would be a lot of maintenance.”

Ionizers, which have about a 10-year life span, are cheaper in the long term, easier to install and use existing equipment. Filters could be upgraded from MERV 8 to 13.

“So far early studies on these show some effectiveness on COVID-19,” said Gaines.

The cost of each unit can range between $1,500 to $8,500, depending on size, including installation, although Gaines said that the district planned to install them to save on costs.

The systems, installed by Lindenwood University and other school districts, might also prevent the spread of the flu and common cold.

“If you think about employee productivity and student attendance at school … this might not be such a bad thing moving into the future if we can reduce illness,” Gaines said.

After starting the school year all-virtual, the district focused on four pieces of data when deciding whether to bring students back to school: regional transmission rate, county positivity rate, trends of positivity and percent change in daily new cases. Once transmission rates stabilized around 1 earlier this fall — meaning that each existing infection causes one new infection on average instead of increasing — the district began bringing back students beginning with the youngest grade levels first. The transmission rate has since gone above 1, however.

“As we’ve made decisions along the way, it seems like every dimension creates this multidimensional infinite puzzle with no defined solution and constantly moving parts,” said Gaines. “Every time we lay down a piece of the puzzle … there’s always a puzzle that has to be solved.”

Gaines promised weekly COVID data meetings with staff, along with updates to staff, teachers and parents once students returned. Since the very first students returned to classrooms in September, the district has been updating its COVID-19 dashboard with the number of student and staff cases and quarantines, culminating in half of Washington Middle School quarantined for two weeks in October after an outbreak with four positive student cases and three positive staff cases.

“What we’ve talked about is closing classrooms before buildings and closing buildings before the district,” said Gaines. “Trying to shut everything down as we slowly come back.”

It’s difficult to keep students and staff free from cases as the virus spikes, Gaines said: “Wear a mask, be sure to social distance, please avoid large gatherings and limit physical contact. We’re trying to preach that over and over and over again.”