Dr. Gaines: The hardest recommendation of my career

Dr. Gaines: The hardest recommendation of my career
Posted on 08/20/2020
Mehlville Board of EducationAs a superintendent charged with the safety of 10,000 students and 1,750 staff members, the recommendation to start school virtually in August has weighed heavy. It’s not a decision that our Board of Education took lightly, and we are doing everything we can to bring students back to school as soon as we safely can.

We know without a doubt that kids learn best when they are in school with their teachers and peers. Any deviation from in-school learning is a burden to our students, community and our staff. I wanted to provide you with some context around how I came to the recommendation that we start the school year virtually. Here are some of the key facts and guiding principles that I used when making my recommendation. 

County data indicates that COVID-19 cases were declining from mid-May through early June. In mid-June, cases hit a floor. In late June, cases started to rise again. By mid-July, cases were rising rapidly. Indications are that the level of transmission will remain high for several more weeks.

Lots of entities have put out guidance; some of that guidance conflicts. Our primary influencer on school-based decisions is the St. Louis County Department of Public Health. On July 30, they recommended districts start in as virtual of an environment as possible.

When looking at the ZIP codes of Mehlville School District, 63125, 63128, and 63129, the rolling 14-day sum of new cases rose steadily throughout July. The first 15 days of July saw 139 new cases in these three ZIP codes. The last 15 days of July saw 408 new cases.

The most recent transmission rate for the region was at 1.58. Anything above a 1 is deemed troublesome. Positivity rates for the county have remained above 8 percent in recent days. 

We felt that rise in cases on our own campuses. We completed contact tracing on 18 individuals in July who were exposed to COVID-19 or tested positive for COVID-19. In the first week of August, we’ve conducted contact tracing on 9 individuals. These exposures resulted in buildings being closed, and staff and student athletes being asked to remain off campus. Once school starts in August, positive cases within a classroom or school have the potential to cause a school-wide shutdown.

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention supports students in school full time. Yet, the recommendations they put forth are not in line with the decisions communities have made about their schools over time. Schools were built for efficiency; we do not have space to allow for social distancing. In community engagement throughout last fall, we repeatedly heard that safety is important to our community.

Since late April, we have had a team working on what a return to school could look like. They have spent countless hours in research, conversations and planning. The result is the multi-scenario plan we shared on July 20. The plan includes an At-School model (Plan A) that allows 100 percent of our students to be on campus daily with enhanced precautions and safety measures. Much like an experience at the grocery store, dentist, or restaurant is different, school would look different in our at-school model.

Next is our Blended model (Plan B) that would have 50 percent of students here on alternating days and all students connecting virtually on Monday mornings.

Finally, our Connected model (Plan C) has 100 percent of students connecting virtually from home. It includes daily video conferences with students and is much more robust than the emergency remote learning we provided this spring. Our plan calls for us to be in a Connected model when there is high community spread of COVID-19. That is where we are today. 

When we don’t have kids in school full-time, we know our families struggle with childcare. We know kids can struggle with screen fatigue and miss out on social-emotional learning opportunities. We know some of our families struggle to put food on the table and meet the mental health needs of their kids. This is why we are doing everything we can to pivot to Plan B and eventually Plan A. We need the support of the entire community to reduce COVID-19 transmission. I hope you will join me in wearing a face covering, practicing social distancing and washing your hands frequently.

Thank you for your support and grace during these challenging times. Thank you to our staff and especially the members of our Return to School Committee for their tireless work this summer preparing to teach children no matter what. Whether we are screen-to-screen or face-to-face, our teachers are committed to our community’s kids.

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