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Parson Won’t Press Schools To Reopen As Pandemic Worsens

Missouri Gov. Mike Parson speaks to St. Louis-area school superintendents about back-to-school plans Wednesday at Jennings Senior High School.
Ryan Delaney
St. Louis Public Radio
Missouri Gov. Mike Parson speaks to St. Louis-area school superintendents about back-to-school plans Wednesday at Jennings Senior High School.

Missouri’s governor will let school officials make their own decisions about how to navigate the unmarked trail of educating students during a worsening pandemic.

Gov. Mike Parson met with about a dozen St. Louis-area superintendents Wednesday afternoon, one of several regional meetings with school administrators this week as districts make plans for how, or if, to return to school in a few weeks.

Parson has repeatedly said he wants children and teachers to return to classrooms, arguing it can be done safely if proper health precautions are taken. But he didn’t press that message with the superintendents he met with, some of whom have already decided to keep buildings closed for the first weeks or months of the school year, which begins Aug. 24.

“They’re each unique,” Parson told reporters following the meeting at Jennings High School. “The challenges here that we heard today are different than I heard in Neosho, and Springfield and Jefferson City. Most of those people, 90 percent of the people, parents, want the schools to start back up.”

Support for sending kids back among parents in St. Louis, meanwhile, has lessened, according to surveys done by districts. Several teachers unions have also called for school buildings to stay closed.

In the 24 hours from Tuesday evening to Wednesday, a half-dozen school systems made moves to continue remote learning into the fall. Clayton, Kirkwood, Webster Groves, Parkway and Pattonville of St. Louis County said buildings will remain closed.

“This will be a hardship for parents in our district,” said Kirkwood Superintendent David Ulrich. “Thankfully, we have many parents, many families in our district that are blessed to be able to manage this. But we know there is a percentage of our families that this will be a hardship.”

That was echoed in St. Louis by KIPP charter schools. St. Louis Public Schools Superintendent Kelvin Adams is recommending a virtual start, which the school board will vote on next week.

Continuing to keep schools closed will strain parents’ ability to fully work at their jobs. It will also risk widening gaps between high- and low-income students as well as those with special needs or limited English, all of whom struggled when schools quickly closed in March, educators and parents said.

“While some kids are better in a virtual setting, the overall majority of our kids learn better, connect better, all those kinds of things, face-to-face,” said John Simpson, superintendent of Webster Groves.

But Simpson and other school leaders say reopening buildings is not safe as the coronavirus pandemic worsens. Daily new cases of coronavirus are up 29% in the St. Louis region and 39% statewide.

Parson also said he will not issue statewide orders on mask-wearing inside school. It’s better, he said, for local school officials to make those decisions.

“There’s no doubt it’s safer to wear a mask. We all know that,” he said. “But you’ll have some parents who don’t want their kids to wear a mask in school.”

Better contact tracing and more testing are needed to help schools figure out how to respond if a student or staff member gets sick from the virus during the school year, Parson said. As cases rise and demand for more testing increases, however, he said there is “significant stress on the system.”

Follow Ryan on Twitter: @rpatrickdelaney

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Ryan is a reporter on the education desk at St. Louis Public Radio, covering both higher education and the many school districts in the St. Louis region. He has previously reported for public radio stations WFYI in Indianapolis and WRVO in upstate New York. He began his journalism career working part time for WAER while attending Syracuse University. He's won multiple reporting awards and his work, which has aired on NPR, The Takeaway and WGBH's Innovation Hub. Having grown up in Burlington, Vt., he often spends time being in the woods hiking, camping, and skiing.