ST. LOUIS COUNTY — Driven by difficulties in educating younger students online and recent statistics on coronavirus spread among young children, the Rockwood School District is contemplating a phased return to school, officials said Friday.
There has been no date set for a return to school, as officials said they are still in the planning phase. First to return would be prekindergarten through second graders, as early as this month, district Superintendent Mark Miles said. Third through fifth graders would follow.
Fall sports are still under discussion, he said.
Online options still would be available for families uncomfortable with in-person learning during the coronavirus pandemic, he said, and could include livestreaming from classrooms. Schools will implement a series of measures intended to minimize the spread of the virus, including a mask requirement for everyone in schools, if their health allows it, hygiene measures and social distancing. Schools will use seating charts and will encourage parents to drive students to school if possible, but buses will be available.
In an email to staff Friday, Miles wrote, “As we would successfully and gradually phase-in grade levels and programs, we would keep a careful eye on our community health indicators, our own Rockwood practices and any concerns with the health and safety of our students and staff. As always, health and safety will remain our top priority.”
Miles acknowledged that the timetable for returning to school had been sped up. The initial target date for returning was the end of the first quarter. Miles said the decision follows conversations with health and medical officials and a focus group of 55 community members. Friday marked the end of the second week of school.
Miles said COVID-19 data showed older students have both a higher rate of transmission of the virus and an easier time with online learning.
He also said St. Louis County Executive Sam Page had spoken of the relative safety of educating those younger than 9.
In a blog post, Chesterfield Elementary School Principal Meg Brooks said principals had been discussing parents’ struggles “with helping our youngest kiddos, who do not have the skills to navigate the technology independently. The struggle is very real on the part of our parents and teachers — this is hard!”
Fred Oelschlaeger, who has a first grader and a third grader at Chesterfield Elementary and a junior at Lafayette High School, said, “Obviously, there’s some bumps as we start out. But at the end of two weeks, I’m very confident it can work and work well.”
Oelschlaeger said he was “very impressed with how the teachers are making sure the kids are paying attention in the same way they do in the classroom.”
The Mehlville School District in south St. Louis County is also considering bringing the youngest students back to campuses first, a spokeswoman said Friday. District leaders are watching the coronavirus data, particularly following Labor Day weekend, before making a decision.
St. Louis County officials released data Friday showing the spread of the virus in public and private schools for the month of August, revealing that 39 students tested positive for COVID-19 and 23 of them potentially exposed other students, teachers or staff to the virus, resulting in 325 students and staffers being placed in quarantine.
The majority of the cases were among middle and high school students.
Meanwhile, 34 staffers tested positive and 14 of those resulted in potential exposure to others, resulting in 120 people placed in quarantine.
Officials said 200 students and staff were required to quarantine as a result of a potential exposure outside school.
Miles said if Rockwood students or staff test positive, whole classes could be quarantined, and whole schools could be closed if an outbreak is severe enough.
Announcements that many local schools would not meet in-person sparked protests and petitions by parents concerned about the financial and logistical hardship of accommodating virtual learning. Some parents have opted for private or parochial schools that are holding in-person classes.
Miles said “a number” of students had left the district rather than learn online, although he did not have an exact number.
The Rockwood district covers about 150 square miles in west and southwest St. Louis County and part of Jefferson County.
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