Student with laptop

Back to school for the 2021 school year will be online in some form for many students in the St. Louis area, due to sustained community spread of COVID-19.

Thursday afternoon, St. Louis County Executive Sam Page announced the recommendation that schools operate as virtual as possible this fall, due to the continued spike in the number of people testing positive for the coronavirus.

The COVID-19 pandemic forced some school districts, including St. Louis Public Schools, Hazelwood, Parkway and Kirkwood, to announce they were doing total online student learning at least for the first semester of the next school year, which starts in August for most students.

Page’s news conference on Thursday afternoon, July 30 follows ongoing discussions with health and school leaders, community officials and area school superintendents, who requested and received a formal recommendation from the Department of Public Health.

Page read parts of the letter sent to school leaders today and signed by the County’s Acting Director of Public Health, Spring Schmidt. It said the County is experiencing sustained increase of COVID-19 cases due to community transmission. “This trend has been rising for several weeks, and epidemiologists point to signs that the level of transmission is continuing to increase and will remain high for several more weeks,” Page read. “While we put measures in place in our community to control the virus and prevent more serious negative health outcomes, it is likely it will take some time for those measures to have an impact on the spread.

“Given the fact that most St. Louis County schools are preparing to open in a few weeks, it is unlikely that the spread of the virus will be sufficiently controlled in order for nearly 300,000 children and 25,000 teachers, and thousands of other staff to be able to attend school full-time without a significant risk of outbreaks. Therefore, it is the formal recommendation of the Department of Public Health that all schools start the semester in as virtual of an environment as is possible to protect students, staff, and families.”

Page said while the recommendation is not a mandate, the Dept. of Public Health may take additional action in the future if schools or school buildings experience significant COVID-19 outbreaks.

He said he understands the frustrations of students, parents, teachers and school leaders, families and residents and he urges parents to select the all-virtual learning option, if possible, for their children. Unfortunately, the lack of universal adherence to community safety precautions will not allow schools to operate safely right now during this COVID-19 pandemic.

“Despite the thoughtful and protective planning that many have worked on these past months, the current level of community transmission poses the largest risk to the safety of our schools,” Page said. “Many of the new behaviors around mask wearing, social distancing, and avoiding crowds are not yet universal.” He said even businesses and organizations who have adhered to safety precautions have had outbreaks, due to the nature of the coronavirus.

“The department will continue to partner with all school leaders to monitor changes in the data and community adherence to social distancing. We will remain focused on our desire to see students in schools receiving education and we will share all available data to make sure those decisions are put together in the future.”

The pandemic has upended what is normal and Page says the sooner precautions are universally adopted, the sooner we can see the downward trend in coronavirus cases.

“Until masks are universal in our region and everyone adheres to social distancing, this virus will continue to spread. It doesn’t know jurisdictional boundaries; it doesn’t know county boundaries; it doesn’t know city boundaries,” Page said. “And we must come together, to push back together as one before we can even begin to have a conversation about a return to normal.

“These numbers would not be escalating if everyone were adhering to our public health guidelines. So please, wear a mask, and follow our social distancing policies. That’s the best chance to get our kids in the best education environment this fall.”

With Page at his announcement was Paul Seigler, executive director of EducationPlus, which represents 54 area school districts and charter schools. Seigler said teachers and schools are disappointed that they can’t safely welcome students back to school right now.

“For the last 16 weeks, we have worked as a group of educational leaders to determine what best practices we have to brig students and teachers back in a safe manner. Through that work, we had identified many processes around cleaning, and distancing and educational components we thought would allow us to bring back kids this fall,” Seigler said. “We are left disappointed that we are not going to be able to bring kids back right now.”

For school districts that have announced hybrid models of alternating days of in school and at-home learning when the next school year begins, Page said the county supports them with any information or data they need for their decisions for a hybrid model but expects those schools should have an all-virtual plan ready to go and continue to evaluate as it gets closer to the start of school.

Another concern Page talked about is providing resources for families who depend on schools for support services, like seeing a nurse, community health services or seeing a social worker.

“That’s where a lot of kids get their breakfast and lunch, so we have to make sure that those other needs in addition to education are also being followed and we are doing everything we can to help those families and those kids too,” Page said.

New public health guidelines during the coronavirus pandemic go into effect tomorrow. Find out more at STLcorona.com.

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