During the first few weeks of the new school year, Jefferson County schools have been able to keep most students in classrooms, using different approaches to combat the spread of COVID-19.
The Fox C-6 and Dunklin R-5 school districts began the year requiring masks to be worn indoors, and after the first two weeks of the school year, the Crystal City and Jefferson R-7 school districts began requiring masks because of the rising number of positive COVID-19 cases among students and staff members.
The De Soto, Festus R-6, Grandview R-2, Hillsboro R-3, Northwest R-1, Sunrise R-9 and Windsor C-1 school districts and St. Pius X High School in Crystal City do not require masks to be worn
While schools have numerous mitigation factors in place, masks have become a divisive issue.
The last two Fox Board of Education meetings on Aug. 17 and Sept. 7 were contentious as board members voted at each meeting to require masks to be worn.
On Sept. 7, board members voted 5-2 to continue to require masks, with Michelle Chamberlain, Jim Chellew, Vicki Hanson, Krystal Hargis and Carole Yount voting in favor of the policy and board president Judy Smith and April Moeckel voting against it. That vote was taken after Smith’s motion to no longer require masks at the district’s two high schools failed, with board members voting along the same lines.
Before that meeting, about 50 people gathered at the intersection of Jeffco Boulevard and Hwy. 141 in Arnold to protest Fox’s mask requirement, and about 95 people attended the meeting in Rickman Auditorium with the majority in the audience opposing the district’s mitigation strategy.
“The fact that the school board has the power to dictate that people wear masks is an overreach of their power,” said one of the protesters, Nick Snyder, whose daughter attends Sherwood Elementary School. “If students do not wear a mask, they have to go home, which is nuts that they can have their right to an education refused.”
Superintendent Paul Fregeau said he has visited every building since school began Aug. 25 at Fox, and he has been encouraged by what he has seen in classrooms.
“Students, staff and administration are happy and enjoy being in school with their friends and colleagues,” he said. “There are good things happening in the classrooms. It is heartwarming to see what is going on in our buildings right now with the return to the full week with full classrooms.”
The following is a look at how the 2021-2022 school year has begun at schools that serve students in the south part of the county.
Dunklin R-5 Superintendent Clint Freeman said this school year has been close to normal since the district’s approximately 1,480 students returned to class Aug. 25.
Students are required to wear masks when they are moving throughout buildings or cannot be spaced 3 feet apart. They can take off masks in classrooms and other parts of buildings when the social distancing requirement can be met.
The district reported on its website that 10 students and one staff member had tested positive for COVID-19 as of Sept. 9. It also had 37 students and one staff member out of school because they were quarantined after possible exposures.
“The things we have in place are working really well,” Freeman said. “It is not about masks or not masks; it is about what we can do to keep kids in school. We have very few kids who are quarantined, right now, and we are very pleased with the way things are going.”
The De Soto School District, which began classes Aug. 25, saw a jump in positive cases among students during the third week of school, Sept. 6-12.
The district reported on its website that during the first 10 days of school, five students and two staff members tested positive for COVID-19. It reported that 18 students and two staff members tested positive the week of Sept. 6, with 12 of the positive cases occurring among high school students.
On Tuesday, De Soto reported seven new positive cases among its 3,100 students and one new positive case among staff members.
Despite the COVID-19 cases, Superintendent Josh Isaacson said the start of the school year has gone well.
“It has been a positive start with a great deal of understanding from students, parents, and staff,” he said. “We are taking it one day at a time.”
The Festus R-6 School District reported on its website Tuesday that a total of 15 students and staff members, or 0.42 percent of its population, had tested positive for the virus, which is below the district’s threshold to require masks to be worn.
Festus has 3,250 students and 350 staff members, and 1 percent of that population would have to test positive for a districtwide mask-wearing policy, said Kevin Pope, coordinator of communications and special projects. He also said buildings would impose a mask policy if 2 percent of its students and staff test positive, but no Festus building has reached that threshold since school began Aug. 23.
“The number is always changing,” said Lindsey Roth, coordinator of staff and student wellness. “There are going to be peaks and valleys. We hope to remain under the threshold (before masks are required), but it can change quickly.”
The Fox C-6 School District, Jefferson County’s largest school district with about 11,500 students enrolled, has required masks to be worn indoors since classes started on Aug. 25.
As of Monday, Fox reported that 30 students and staff members had tested positive for COVID-19, and 122 students and staff members were quarantined after possible exposure to the virus, according to its website.
“When you compare it to data of similar size districts and smaller districts in the region, our numbers seem to be better than most,” Fregeau said. “I think that is because of our several layers of mitigation that we put in place to keep all kids in school five days a week as much as possible.”
The Crystal City School District, which has classes Tuesday through Friday, began school Aug. 24 without a mask requirement.
However, masks became mandatory during the second week of school when 6 percent of the students tested positive for the virus.
As of Tuesday, Crystal City was seeing a drop in positive cases among its approximately 560 students, with 25, or 3.9 percent, out of school because of positive tests. That was a drop from Sept. 3, when the district had 39 positive cases, according to its website.
The district also had fewer students in quarantine on Tuesday, dropping from 57 on Sept. 3 to 21. The district’s positive cases among staff members fell from 10 to three as of Tuesday.
“I have more positive reinforcement than negative,” Superintendent Matt Holdinghausen said of the mask requirement. “I think most of the people saw the data and understood something needed to be done.”
The Grandview R-2 School District, which has 751 students and 101 staff members, has not required masks to be worn since the percentage of positive cases has remained below 2 percent in each building since school started Aug. 24. Grandview has a four-day schedule, with classes held Tuesday through Friday.
As of Monday, two students and one staff member were not in school after testing positive for COVID-19, according to its website. “Most of our cases actually began before school started, and half of those have returned to school after not starting the school year with us,” said Superintendent Matt Zolph, whose district has had eight positive cases so far this school year. “I think everyone has it in the back of their head wondering when something is going to happen, but I have seen more smiles this year than I have seen in the last 18 months.”
At the Hillsboro R-3 School District, 32 students were out of school after they tested positive for COVID-19, and 59 students were out because they were quarantined, according to the district’s website on Monday. Hillsboro also had 156 students attending classes under modified quarantine guidelines, which allow them to attend school with a mask after a possible exposure as long as they show no symptoms of the virus.
Hillsboro also reported that six staff members had tested positive for the virus as of Monday.
“We continue to watch how COVID is impacting our students and staff,” said Superintendent Jon Isaacson, whose district has 3,340 students. “Our focus is to have kids in school learning, and the staff here working and teaching. Each day is a struggle with that, but that continues to be our focus. Right now, I think our mitigation strategy is appropriate, and we are in constant contact with (the Jefferson County) Health Department to make sure what we are doing is appropriate to keep kids in school and as safe as possible.”
St. Pius X High School President Jim Lehn said as of Monday, one student was out of school in quarantine. The school has 281 students.
The school began the school year with freshmen attending classes Aug. 16 and the rest of the students returning Aug. 17.
“The protocols we have in place appear to be beneficial at this time, and we continue to monitor the situation,” Lehn said. “Our main mission is to educate students in school. We have learned virtual is not as successful as in person. We are doing everything we can do to keep them in person.”
The Windsor C-1 School District, which has about 3,000 students and 400 staff members, began the school year Aug. 23.
As of Monday, it had 32 students and two staff members out after they tested positive for COVID-19. The district also had 156 students in quarantine and two staff members quarantined, according to the district’s website.
“Every day we look at where we are and where we think it may be going,” assistant superintendent Jeff Buscher said. “If we find a hot spot in the district or building, we will address that.”