Jennings School District Superintendent Art McCoy

“We have kids facing anxiety, depression and trauma from changing behaviors, from basically being in seclusion for a month or two,” said Jennings Superintendent Art McCoy.

Superintendents from many area school districts have announced plans to reopen on August 24.  Considering that Missouri was recently noted for its largest single-day increase of COVID-19 cases, is it wise to bring kids back to classrooms?

One thing we know for sure about COVID-19 is that we don't much for sure.

We don’t know for sure what percentage of adults and children are asymptomatic. We don’t know exactly how the virus spreads. We don’t know for sure if infected people are immune from reinfection. We don’t know the long-term effects of severely impacted COVID-19 victims. We don’t know if we will ever implement mass testing and quarantining.

Yet, with all these unknowns and more, many children are going back to school in a few weeks.

Recently, Dr. Deborah Birx, a member of the White House Coronavirus Task Force, in a private phone call to city officials, warned that St. Louis, along with 10 other cities, must take “aggressive” steps to stem outbreaks due to alarming increases of coronavirus.

In mid-July, Jennings Superintendent Art McCoy spoke with KSDK about his plans to start summer school just one day after the city reported its highest single day total of COVID-19 cases. McCoy told The American that the population his district serves face social, health and economic epidemics that are just as harmful as COVID-19.

“We want to provide something for children who are in neglect situations if they don’t have caring adults to take care of them,” McCoy said. “We have court-adjudicated students coming in, we have foster care students and, of course, general workers and first responders who need childcare.” 

Reopening Jennings schools, McCoy said, is about meeting the immediate needs of the community he serves.

“We have kids facing anxiety, depression and trauma from changing behaviors, from basically being in seclusion for a month or two,” McCoy said. “We have parents who’ve said, ‘My kid is depressed. They can’t sleep. They’ve started to talk weird. They say they want to hurt themselves’ and so forth.”

McCoy said it’s imperative that educators move at “the speed of the need” to provide safe options for all students. “We have to be courageous, knowing that everything is going to be a pilot,” he said. “So why not start early and do something?”

McCoy said he is not advocating for the reopening of all Missouri schools. “Not every leader is competent enough to run a (school) building in this climate,” he said, “without the right education, preparation or, most important, conversations with health professionals and physicians.”

McCoy is a certified Johns Hopkins University COVID-19 contact tracer (someone traces the contacts of people with an infectious disease). He said he’s the first superintendent in Missouri to create a school reopening plan that was approved by the state and county health departments.

Still, the unknowns of the coronavirus are real, and McCoy is cautious. “This is not for everybody,” he said. “It’s not something I’m going to force on my teachers. We’re going to make special accommodations for teachers and students.”

He admitted that the risks of opening Jennings’ schools are high. But the risks of doing nothing are just as high. To do nothing is to risk the lives of kids who disproportionately drop out of high school, get shot or murdered, who are abused at home, traumatized or at risk of living adult lives in poverty.

If education is a civil right, McCoy believes, then it’s up to informed leaders to blaze new paths, boldly defend and take risks to defend that right. “If we educators are paid tax-payer dollars,” he said, “then we have an obligation to be servant leaders.”

Sylvester Brown Jr. is The St. Louis American’s inaugural Deaconess Fellow.

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