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Missouri schools prepare for online learning in the fall, while cases of mystery inflammatory syndrome pop up in St. Louis

Missouri schools prepare for online learning in the fall, while cases of mystery inflammatory syndrome pop up in St. Louis

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Updated at 9:05 p.m. Tuesday with information about inflammatory syndrome thought to be related to coronavirus.

School is almost out for summer, but will it be back in for fall?

Every school superintendent is grappling with the decision about whether to hold classes in schools, online or some combination when most Missouri districts return Aug. 24 for the 2020-2021 school year. Many have decided to host virtual classes this summer.

“Our preference will always be to have our children in schools,” said John Simpson, superintendent of Webster Groves School District, in a message Tuesday on social media. “That said, the consensus of most health experts is that we won’t have a vaccine by the fall and a spike in COVID-19 cases is likely to occur. For this reason, we must consider all of our options for how school might need to look, including but not limited to distance learning.”

At a minimum, states will need to provide widespread testing and tracing of the virus before classrooms can reopen, federal health officials said in a Senate committee hearing Tuesday in Washington.

Meanwhile, a St. Louis Children’s Hospital spokesperson confirmed Tuesday night the hospital has seen “a few” cases of a mystery inflammatory syndrome thought to be related to coronavirus.

More than 50 children in New York City have confirmed cases of the syndrome, which can cause heart and kidney failure.

In all, New York is investigating about 100 cases of the syndrome, which affects blood vessels and organs and has symptoms similar to Kawasaki disease and toxic shock. Three children in the state have died.

Dr. Anthony Fauci had a sharp retort for Sen. Rand Paul after the Kentucky Republican said that it’s “kind of ridiculous” to suggest children should be kept out of school in the fall.

While agreeing that children on the whole do much better than adults with COVID-19, Fauci noted recent reports of severe disease among children and said the virus isn’t well understood.

“We don’t know everything about this virus and we really better be pretty careful, particularly when it comes to children,” Fauci said. “I think we better be careful (that) we are not cavalier in thinking that children are completely immune from the deleterious effects.”

Educators and public health officials also are concerned about adult employees in schools, as well as children spreading the virus to family members at home.

“We must do all we can to ensure students, teachers and support staff are safe at school and are not unknowingly transmitting or contracting the virus,” reads a report released this month by the American Federation of Teachers.

Last week, the Missouri School Boards’ Association released social distancing guidelines if schools reopen in the fall, including no sharing of classroom supplies and no assembling in the cafeteria or gym.

Whether online or in-person, districts might start school earlier in the summer after the Missouri board of education voted Tuesday to accept applications for waivers from a new state law requiring a start date no earlier than Aug. 24.

St. Louis Public Schools applied for a waiver, which was denied earlier this year, before schools shut down to help prevent the spread of coronavirus. District officials have not decided whether to apply again for a waiver to start earlier in August, according to an SLPS spokeswoman.

“The longer kids are away from the classroom, the harder it is to catch up,” said Margie Vandeven, the state’s commissioner of education, in explaining the rationale for an earlier start date. “It’s very difficult to think about kids being out of school since March 19.”

The Missouri education department has received $208 million in grants to distribute to the state’s 550 districts and charter schools through the federal Coronavirus Aid, Relief and Economic Security Act. Under the guidelines for the money, districts must provide equitable services to private schools. While the money can’t go directly to private schools, they can request and receive laptops purchased by public districts, for example.

The rule “creates an environment where wealthy children in private schools are counted and used to generate the (grant money) for their private schools at the direct expense of low-income children remaining in public schools,” reads a letter sent earlier this month by the School Superintendents Association and other organizations to U.S. Education Secretary Betsy DeVos.

Chris Neale, an assistant commissioner of the Missouri Department of Elementary and Secondary Education, said at the board meeting Tuesday that state officials are confused by the federal directive.

“Do we follow the law, or do we follow this guidance that doesn’t seem to reconcile to the law?” Neale asked. The education department “doesn’t want to be in a position of being anything but fair.”

John Burroughs School and Mary Institute and St. Louis Country Day School received several million in federal loans through a separate fund in the coronavirus aid bill called the Paycheck Protection Program. Both schools returned the money earlier this month after federal officials said the money was not intended for private schools with endowments.

The Missouri education department’s priorities for the money include digital access, staff training, social/emotional support and learning gaps. About 23% of students — nearly 200,000 total — across the state lack access to the internet or technology to participate in virtual classrooms, Neale said.

“The first thing we’re jumping on is the digital divide,” Vandeven said. “Education is not going to look the same in the future. I don’t think it is all going to go online, but components of it will.”

The Associated Press contributed to this report.

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