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The Big Question: How should kids head back to school?

Typically as July wanes, kids begin to accept the reality that school will soon be back in session. But this year, that reality has changed.

While President Donald Trump is calling for a return to the classroom, five days a week, every week, St. Louis County Executive Sam Page is not. And it’s not just politicians that are divided. Parents, too, are taking sides.

On July 23, Rockwood School District (RSD) parents who organized under the Facebook group “Concerned Parents of the Rockwood School District” turned out in force at the district’s Board of Education meeting. For most, the goal was to have their voices heard regarding a return to five-day-a-week, in-person school week. The group has sponsored a petition on change.org with the title “A CHOICE for 5 full days in-class for Rockwood School District students.” As of midday on Friday, July 24, that petition has over 1,300 signatures.

Child returning to school
(Source: Adobe Stock)

Verbiage associated with the petition states that its signatories “have been harmed” by the district’s Return-to-School plan. Furthermore, the petition says the group objects to the plan being “developed and implemented in spite of the results of a survey conducted by the RSD in June 2020 which showed that over 74% of RSD parents want their children to return to 100% in-classroom instruction when school reopens.”

Additionally, the petition claims that the plan was “not based upon science or recently released CDC statistics” (see “CDC recommends safe return to school”) and “ignores the guidance of professional health organizations, such as the American Academy of Pediatrics.” Nor does it “take into account the immense negative impact that at-home instruction has on the educational and social development of our children, as well as their psychological health.”

On the flip side, a change.org petition titled “We support the Rockwood School Board in these unprecedented times” had nearly 1,250 signatures. The petition is an open letter to Rockwood Superintendent Mark Miles and the district’s board of education. In part, it reads: “We understand that there are those who oppose the upcoming plan for the school year. However, we want to assure you that they do not speak for all Rockwood families.”

Last Monday, July 20, Rockwood and Parkway joined many other local school districts in releasing their plans for the upcoming term.

Rockwood’s Return-to-School Plan provides two options:

  • A reduced-capacity educational option where students attend classes in-person two days per week and have three days of at-home, virtual education through an online curriculum. This model allows the student body to be divided in half for the purpose of social distancing and allows one day per week (Monday) when all school buildings will be closed and sanitized. Students will have scheduled Zoom meetings with their teachers on Mondays. At the middle and high school levels, teachers will be moving from a semester to a quarter system. This will allow them to focus on three or four courses each quarter rather than seven over a semester.
  • Five days of at-home, virtual education through an online curriculum. Time spent in virtual learning varies by grade but generally is about four hours per day of instruction with additional work time (homework).

Parkway’s plan offers both of those options along with an in-person five day per week possibility if the number of coronavirus cases in the area significantly decline. As it stands on July 24, the five-day, in-person option is not available. At the July 23 Rockwood board meeting, some Parkway parents, who have organized on Facebook as Parkway Parents for Full-time School, stood alongside the concerned Rockwood parents.

But what is the right answer?

On July 23, the CDC issued revised guidelines that make a strong case for returning to in-person instruction – and educators agree that in-person learning, along with on-campus meals for vulnerable kids and socialization among peers, is best. But the key, says one local educator, is that everyone – from the CDC down to local school administrators and educators – want students to return safely.

“Everyone says kids need to be safely in school and there’s not enough space to safely social distance with all, or even most, kids back on campus five days a week,” the educator, who asked to be anonymous, said. “Believe me, educators, especially with kids of their own, want to get back to school the way it was, but safely.”

One person who doesn’t think safely in-person is possible is Page.

On July 24, during a press update, he reiterated a familiar message: “I’ve been saying now for a week that parents should choose a virtual option whenever it’s available.” He alluded to the possibility that all the plans made by school districts could be moot.

“With the trajectory that we’re currently going right now, it will be very difficult for schools to have in-person classes in the next four weeks,” Page said. “We’re not at the point today that I can say that for certain but just looking at the trend – we’ll watch it through the weekend – it would be very difficult for schools to have anything other than an all virtual curriculum.”

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