Dunklin R-5 School District Superintendent Clint Freeman witnessed firsthand how different school would be this year when he stopped by a Herculaneum High School Spanish class on the first day of school on Aug. 26 and an alarm on the teacher’s phone went off, signaling cleaning time.
The teacher got a bottle of sanitizer and sprayed each desk, and then students wiped off their desks, threw away their trash and headed off to their next class.
“No one complained. When I saw that happen, I was like, ‘Our kids are engaged, onboard and they will make this work,’” Freeman said Sept. 10.
That was a week before eight Herculaneum High School football players tested positive for COVID-19, requiring members of the varsity and junior varsity teams to be quarantined for 14 days, along with varsity and junior varsity players on the Jefferson R-7 School District’s high school teams, which had played Herculaneum on Sept. 11.
“It’s not that our staff and students are not doing what they are supposed to be doing,” Freeman said. “They are working hard, wearing their masks, sanitizing, social distancing and all of those things. They will continue to do that, and we just hit a bump in the road.”
Worries about the COVID-19 pandemic forcing students to miss in-person instruction are something every Jefferson County school official and educator faces this school year.
After school buildings had to shut down in mid-March last school year because of the pandemic, districts started formulating plans to bring students back this school year, along with plans to offer online instruction and a mixture of the two.
In the final week of August and first week of September, districts put those plans into action with some offering five-day or four-day in-school learning and some using a hybrid model with some in-class instruction and some online learning. All the school districts also offer the option for students to learn completely online at home.
The drastic changes have created difficulties, not to mention the specter of a possible shutdown at any moment if COVID-19 cases surge, but officials say the school year has started as well as can be expected.
“We spent a lot of time preparing for our students and staff to return to school and from all the feedback we have received under the circumstances, we couldn't have asked for a better start,” Fox C-6 School District Superintendent Nisha Patel said.
All the county’s school superintendents hold out hope that schools will remain open until the end of this school year. However, they also know things can change rapidly.
While most schools already have seen students and staff test positive for COVID-19, the superintendents pointed out the majority of those cases have been traced to activity away from school campuses.
The Jefferson County Health Department reported on Monday that the county had seen a total of 4,051 COVID-19 cases since the pandemic began, including 560 children 19 and younger. The Health Department first started seeing cases rise in the younger age groups in July, and it has steadily increased since then.
The Health Department has recommended to school districts that anyone who tests positive should be isolated for 10 days and those who are exposed to the virus should quarantine for 14 days.
De Soto School District Josh Isaacson, who’s also president of the Jefferson County Superintendents Association, said it’s hard to know if school buildings will remain open this school year.
“It’s taken everyone to get us to where we are today, and it will take everyone to get us through this school year. We’ll do it through communication that will lead us to continual improvement. As long as we stick together and work together, we’ll be able to get through it.”
Here is a look at how the school year has begun for county districts:
The Crystal City School district’s 509 students began classes on Aug. 25, with 400 students attending class in person four days a week, and 109 students learning virtually, Superintendent Matt Holdinghausen said.
As of Sept. 18, Holdinghausen said one student had tested positive for COVID-19, and 20 were quarantined after possible exposure to the virus. He said three staff members had tested positive, and three had to be quarantined.
Holdinghausen said 17 of the quarantined students have since returned to school, and two of the quarantined staff members had returned as of Sept. 18.
“I think it has gone as well as can be expected in our district,” Holdinghausen said. “Our staff, administration and students have all done a wonderful job of setting up the plan, working through the plan and making adjustments when necessary. There is concern every day about (COVID-19), but we want to make sure we can keep going as much as we can.”
Holdinghausen said he has not received significant pushback on the protocols put in place to stem the spread of COVID-19. He also said a key component to keep school open for the year is what students and staff members do away from school grounds.
“That is the scary part that lurks in the back of our minds, but as long as everybody does their best and tries to be as responsible as they can, we can continue,” Holdinghausen said.
The De Soto School District’s 2,631 students began classes Aug. 31, with 2,069 attending classes in person five days a week and 562 learning virtually, Isaacson said.
However, beginning Oct. 5, the district will offer teacher-lead instruction just four days a week, with no in-person classes and no teacher-led virtual instruction on Mondays. However, students won’t have Mondays off. Teachers will post assignments for all the district’s students, whether they’re attending in-person classes or strictly online classes, to work on, and teachers will be available to speak with students individually.
“For our students who are at school, they are very excited to be here, and they’ve been very positive and extremely patient and receptive,” Isaacson said. “There are still bugs to work on virtual learning, but they’re being worked out as teachers are collaborating with student and parents.”
As of Monday, Isaacson said seven students and four staff members were not in school after testing positive for COVID-19, and 154 students and 19 staff members were quarantined after possible exposure to the virus.
He also said since the start of the school year, the district has had 10 students and nine staff members test positive for the virus, and 256 students and 57 staff members have been quarantined. As of Monday, the superintendent said three of the students who tested positive and 102 students who were quarantined have returned to school and five staff members who tested positive and 38 staff members who were quarantined have returned to work.
Isaacson said the De Soto district, like others, have plans in place if a short-term or long-term closure of buildings is required again.
Right now, however, the district is focusing on doing what it can to keep students in classrooms.
“Our discussion going forward is how sustainable is our re-entry plan,” Isaacson said. “We’re back in school, so it worked. We want to make sure that what we’re doing we can sustain on a longer term, and what can we do to make it easier. We’ll be looking at policies and practices on an ongoing basis.”
The district’s Board of Education was scheduled to meet Tuesday, after the Leader deadline, to discuss possible modifications to the re-entry plan and the district’s schedule after several teachers and principals aired concern about potential teacher burnout and other issues at the regular meeting on Sept. 17. seminars.
Isaacson said with the change, the Festus R-6 School District will be the only Jefferson County public school district to offer a model in which students attend class either in person or virtually five days a week.
The Dunklin R-5 School District’s 1,576 students began classes Aug. 26, and of those, 1,135 students are attending class in person five days a week, and 441 students are learning virtually, Freeman said.
With the COVID-19 outbreak among football players, the district went from three students who had tested positive for the virus and two students on quarantined on Sept. 10 to 14 positive cases among students and 42 students quarantined on Sept. 18, Freeman said.
He said no staff members have tested positive, and five staff members, including four coaches, have been quarantined since school began. He also said some of the students who had either tested positive or had been quarantined already have returned to school.
Despite the outbreak on the football team, Freeman said he believes the district can make it through the school year as long as safety protocols are followed, such as students and staff wearing masks, practicing social distancing and staying home at the first sign of a possible illness.
“We are smarter now about COVID-19 than we were in March,” Freeman said. “As we continue to evolve as leaders in our district and community, we can continue to put protocols in place to help us and be more successful. I look for us to make changes and tweaks, and hopefully keep the doors open for the rest of the school year.”
The Festus R-6 School District’s 3,134 students began classes on Aug. 24, and 2,445 students of those students are attending class in person five days a week, and 689 students learning virtually, communications coordinator Kevin Pope said.
As of Sept. 18, the district reported that 13 students had tested positive for the virus since early August, and 10 of those students had returned to school, and the other three were still in isolation. Since school began, 10 teachers had tested positive, but all of them had since been released from isolation and returned to work.
“The in-school side – with students and staff – is going as good as can be expected under the circumstances,” Superintendent Link Luttrell said Sept. 11. “We have not had any problems with the students following our protocols.:
He said he hadn’t yet spoken with parents whose children were learning strictly online but was seeking feedback.
“Earlier this week we sent a survey to parents of online students. We should have the data back very soon,” Luttrell said
Like other area superintendents, Luttrell said that while the educational experience is different this school year, students are receiving the highest quality instruction that can be provided.
“I know our teaching staff is going above and beyond in terms of commitment to our students receiving a high-quality curriculum,” Luttrell said. “They continue to learn new models of instruction, especially if online.”
The Fox C-6 School District’s 10,981 students began classes on Aug. 27, with 8,434 students attending class in a hybrid model, and 2,547 students learning virtually, Fox officials reported.
About half of the Fox students who attend class in person are there on Monday and Tuesday, and the other half are in class on Thursday and Friday, and all the students learn online the other three days of the week.
As of Monday, the district had 19 students who had tested positive for COVID-19 and were quarantined as a result, as well as another 154 students who were quarantined after possible exposure to the virus. Fox also had nine staff members who were out because they had tested positive, and another 34 staff members were quarantined because of possible exposure to the virus.
Fox reported that 29 students had been cleared to return after testing positive for the virus, and 257 had returned after being quarantined. The district also reported that 14 staff members who had tested positive had returned to school, and 61 staff members had gone back to work after being quarantined.
Despite those positive cases, Patel said school is going according to plan.
“Once kids were in school, we felt all the protocols that had been put in place worked out the way we had hoped,” Patel said. “We will continue to look at how we can make things better in the coming weeks. However, right now, things are going as expected.”
Patel said while the hybrid model is difficult to execute, she is happy with how it has worked sp far.
She also said she believes students are receiving the best education experience possible under the circumstances.
“We learned a lot from March and have put much in place to ensure a quality education,” Patel said. “Part of that is also our students' mental health, and I know our counselors are doing a great job as well making sure our students feel connected even on days they may be at home. Having said that, there is always room to improve, and we will continue to do that as part of our continuous improvement cycle.”
The Grandview R-2 School District’s 750 students began classes on Aug. 25, and of those, 608 students are attending in person four days a week, and 142 students are learning virtually, Superintendent Matt Zoph said.
As of Tuesday, one student was out of school after testing positive for COVID-19, and no teachers had tested positive, Zoph said. He also said one student and one teacher who previously tested positive and had returned to school.
Zoph said 13 students and one teacher have been quarantined because of possible exposure to the virus, and four students who previously had been quarantined have returned to school.
He also said he believes students are happy to be back in school, although the pandemic has people feeling uneasy because they don’t know what may happen in the future.
“There is fear from all sides of the unknown,” Zoph said. “I think for the most part, parents and students are happy to be back.”
He said he believes if everyone continues to follow the protocols to combat the spread of the virus, it may be possible to keep the district’s buildings open for the entire school year.
Zoph said the way transportation has been handled this school year shows parents and students are willing to find ways to make things work..
“One of the biggest shocks is we are only transporting about 150 kids,” Zoph said. “Last year, we transported 450 kids. We are very happy that when we asked parents to step up and transport kids, because it is difficult to social distance on buses, they have stepped up. That has been the biggest surprise, that parents are able to bring their kids to school.”
The Hillsboro R-3 School District’s 3,402 students began classes on Aug. 31, with 2,731 students attending school in a hybrid model, and 671 students learning virtually, Superintendent Jon Isaacson said.
For the hybrid system, half of the students attend class Monday and Tuesday and half come in Thursday and Friday, and they learn virtually the rest of the time.
As of Monday, the district reported that nine students and five staff member had tested positive for COVID-19 since Aug. 30.
“With the hybrid learning, so far we’ve been able to limit student contact and positive cases resulting in quarantine due to contact,” Isaacson said. “A positive from this is the classes are much smaller. Students are getting more individualized attention when they are here.
“Our teachers and staff have done an amazing job just adapting to teaching in a completely new manner.”
Isaacson said he feels strongly Hillsboro may complete the school year with the existing method in place. However, he said the goal is have students in classrooms five days a week.
He also said he believes students are receiving the best education possible considering the changes made because of the pandemic.
“Our teachers are working probably harder than ever to meet the needs of our kids, and I have no doubt Hillsboro students will continue to receive a great education and school experience,” Isaacson said.
The Jefferson R-7 School District’s 1,063 students began classes on Aug. 24, and 942 students are attending school in a hybrid model, and 121 students are learning virtually.
The hybrid model has students attending in person two days a week and working online at home two days a week. However, starting Oct. 20, the district’s students in pre-kindergarten through fifth grade are expected to start four-day-a-week classroom instruction, while the district’s middle and high school students continue to attend in the hybrid model.
Superintendent Clint Johnston said more students at the middle school and high school are in quarantine than is acceptable under its criteria to return them to classrooms for four days, like the younger students.
“Our yellow status, a hybrid program, is safe but it creates tremendous stressors for the teachers and the parents,” Johnston said. “Going to green, with all face-to-face learning, could ease some of that stress, but it also decreases how we are able to social distance. For some parents who are on the fence about safety issues, that might be enough to make them go to all virtual, or to go to a private school situation.
“With every decision you make, there’s a losing component, and that’s gut-wrenching. This is the most challenging situation I have dealt with in my 29-year career.”
As of Sept. 18, five R-7 students had tested positive for COVID-19, and 99 had been quarantined. The district reported that one staff member had tested positive for the virus and five had been quarantined as of Sept. 17.
Johnston said students and staff have faithfully followed the protocols put in place to try and prevent the spread of the virus, and the district has not had issues enforcing the safety procedures.
He also said he knows students are not learning in ideal situations, especially when receiving virtual instruction, and the district is working daily to improve the educational experience for everyone.
“It’s an impossible situation,” Johnston said. “People are exhausted. They’re sick of this and they want an answer, and there just isn’t one.”
The Northwest R-1 School District’s 6,038 students began classes on Aug. 26, with 4,227 students attending school in a hybrid model, and 1,811 students learning virtually, Superintendent Desi Kirchhofer said.
Elementary school students either attend classes in person five days a week or learn from home online. Students in middle school and high school either attend in-person classes two days a week and learn online at home the other three days, or the secondary students have instruction entirely online from home.
As of Monday, the district reported that six students and six staff members were not at school after testing positive for COVID-19. The district also reported that six students and seven staff members who had tested positive had recovered and could return to school.
“Probably the biggest challenge we have faced, because we really never had worked through this and we talked about it and talked with the health department, is contact tracing,” Kirchhofer said. “Our coordinator of health services was the primary person, but she also is using our school nurses. We've had, I believe six of our staff members trained through John Hopkins as contact tracers.”
Kirchhofer said there had not been problems with students and staff members following the safety protocols put in place, and he hopes the district will be able to keep students in classrooms all year.
“I can't tell you how many times we have used the words we need to be flexible and have patience because that's all we can do right now,” Kirchhofer said. “I think we continue to move forward and if there's no evidence of community spread within the schools; I think we can continue to operate.”
The Sunrise R-9 School District’s 350 students began classes on Aug. 25, with the majority attending class in person four days a week, Superintendent Armand Spurgin said.
He said he did not have the exact numbers of students attending school in person or learning at home virtually because those numbers change daily.
Spurgin said as of Tuesday no students or staff members had tested positive for COVID-19 since school started. However, one staff member tested positive before school started, but that staff member has returned to work.
In addition, the district had three staff members and 10 students placed on quarantine since the start of school. Spurgin said the staff members have returned to work, and five of the students who had been quarantined are back in school.
Spurgin said things have started as well as can be expected this school year.
“Everyone is tense and uneasy because we don’t know what is going to happen,” he said. “The teachers are working very hard. Parents are helping out, and kids are doing well.”
Spurgin said the students and staff are following the safety protocols put in place.
He also said that while he hopes there will be no need for a shutdown, plans have been made if that happens.
“I’m sure at some point, schools will be out for a period of time,” Spurgin said. “We just want to minimize that as much as possible. Online is never as good as in-person, but we do respect the concerns and fears of families who want online instruction. We are doing the best we can. We look forward to getting everyone back in person and having this in our rearview mirror.”
The Windsor C-1 School District’s 2,921 students began classes on Aug. 24, and of those, 2,303 are attending school in a hybrid model, and 618 students learning virtually, Assistant Superintendent Jeff Buscher said.
Windsor’s hybrid system has about half the students learning in person on Monday and Tuesday and the other half in schools on Thursday and Friday. When the students are not in school, they learn online.
As of Monday, the district had four students and four staff members out of school after testing positive for COVID-19, and 39 students and four staff members were quarantined because of possible exposure. Since school started, 11 students and six staff members who tested positive for the virus had returned to school, and 163 students and 19 staff members had returned from quarantine, according to the district’s website.
“I think people are thrilled there is at least the hybrid model, but they’d like to go back to five-day in-person,” Buscher said.
“For those who have chosen to go all-virtual, I think they understood the challenges to come. I think they’re happy where they are.”
Buscher said everyone has been following the protocols the district put in place to help stem the spread of the virus, and he believes the district may be able to complete the school year with those same protocols.
“I know that when I visit with staff members in every building, they are working their tails off trying to make this a positive experience for everyone,” Buscher said. “I think, under the circumstances of hybrid learning, things are going pretty well.”
-- Additional reporting provided by other Leader staff.