As St. Louis Public Schools Board of Education members met to discuss the district’s reopening plans July 13, two different protest groups gathered outside to express their grievances with the district.
Inside, board members worried over the Delta COVID-19 variant’s impact on reopening plans and announced initiatives to bring students back to school with masks and vaccinations.
Outside, activists with the Communities One Project continued their quest to save the historic Paul Lawrence Dunbar Elementary School from becoming an online-school-only facility, a demand for which they have been marching and protesting since this change was announced months ago.
Bridge 2 Hope, a parent empowerment group, demanded more personalized reading and mathematics plans for their children in order to increase the number of SLPS students reading at grade level.
Both groups said that members of the Board have been unresponsive and would not meet with them to discuss alternate plans for the district in a timely manner. Bridge 2 Hope, according to representative Makayla Gray, tried to meet with Superintendent Kelvin Adams on May 5. He never showed up to the meeting, she said. The Individual Academic Recovery Plan (IARP) the group proposed to the district was developed by parents.
“The schools are doing something like individualized reading, but only in kindergarten through third grade,” parent Samantha Simpson said. For her children, though, that’s not enough.
“I do believe that the IARP would have, actually, saved my youngest. He doesn’t have any developmental disabilities…but he couldn’t read,” she said. His test scores, however, were not low enough to warrant extra support.
“Now, he’s going into the fourth grade and reading on a first-grade level, and the district still doesn’t want to provide him with reading services.”
Krystal Barnett, 38, founded Bridge 2 Hope because, as a single mother who began parenting at 19, she felt there were not good options for her kids within the district. Now, she trains “powerful parent advocates” like Angel Were to go into the schools and advocate for their children’s needs. Were said that she had to go into the schools ‘five times in one week’ in order to make sure her children’s academic needs were being served.
To Barnett, this shows a certain “hypocrisy” in the district’s efforts to connect with parents. “What the district has done a good job [at] is, pretending to care, pretending to listen, but moving in a way that…shows that they don’t value community, they don’t value parent engagement and input,” she said.
Board members themselves expressed concerns about lack of parent involvement in the district’s plans.
“I think that institutions can always do a better job at including community and including the stakeholders, I think that’s something that…folks in the institution have to always be open to and listening,” said the Board’s newest member Alisha Sonnier.
Some things, though, “are just tough,” she added. “School closings and school closures are always tough. Nobody wants it to be the school in their community.”
Adams announced that efforts are being made to involve parents in back-to-school planning: teachers with AFT-Local 420 are hosting a “back to school” phone banking session to inform parents of their options, which currently consist of either in-person school or the virtual “edmentum” program.
For whichever schooling option families choose, the ‘one to one’ technology program that was implemented during the first year of the pandemic—in which any student can be loaned a laptop and WiFi hotspot—will continue into this academic year.
Adams also noted that, while recent surveys indicated that “only about 30 families” were interested in virtual schooling, families who may be considering that option more seriously now in light of the Delta variant should contact the district. Blended schooling, in which students attended class in-person sometimes and online sometimes, was “incredibly difficult” for students and staff, Adams said, and as such will not be an option in the coming year.
All schools will be testing students prior to their return to the classroom in August. There is no vaccination requirement in place for students or staff, though Adams hopes to partner with the Urban League in providing more vaccine access to the SLPS population. Right now, he estimated, “about 60 to 80 percent” of teachers and administrators are vaccinated.
Every student and staff member still be required to wear face masks in the fall, as was announced last week “because of the variants.” The Urban League will also partner with the district on providing those masks (some of which, Board members suggested, could be “fun animal masks” in order to encourage younger students to wear them). The district currently has over 100,000 masks in warehouse storage, and is acquiring more.
Adams also emphasized that the school will be able to move smoothly into a fully-virtual format if necessary. “If we ever have to switch, or quarantine a school, we will have the ability to do so,” he said. “We are cognizant of what’s happening in our region…and we want to be ready in case we have to switch.”
For the families organizing with Bridge 2 Hope, though, the prospect of a more normal start of the school year in the fall is not enough. “In 2019, 88% of the Black and Brown children in this district could not read on grade level,” Samantha Simpson said. “And that’s my kids, at the end of the day. And that’s why we’re out here, that’s why all of these parents are coming together—because the more we get educated, the more powerful we become.”
“School closings and school closures are always tough. Nobody wants it to be the school in their community.” SLPS Board member Alisha Sonnier.