(Submitted by a WSD employee who wishes to remain anonymous due to possible repercussions.)
With the start of the school year fast approaching, employees of the Wentzville School District (as well as others, I’m assuming) were given a survey about our feelings on returning to work. In Wentzville, however, it was not asked if we felt it was the time to begin in person classes again, we were simply asked to answer the survey, with in-person education being the goal. In March of this year, when schools were closed, there were at the time two unconfirmed cases of Covid-19; despite this fact, the growing threat of the pandemic was on the minds of parents and children, and some families were arranging to pull their children out of school even before they closed. Now, with over 36,000 confirmed cases in Missouri and over 2000 confirmed cases in St. Charles, the Wentzville School District’s “Road Map” to return to school has schools in the district reopening and allowing all students who wish to return to do so.
One of the things to understand about the Wentzville School District is that it is one of the fastest growing districts in the state (they tell us this every year). They are constantly working to expand and build new schools because of over-population. Middle Schools in the district are limited to seventh and eighth grades, because there are too many students to accommodate the sixth graders in the middle schools, so they are still at the elementary schools. These things are important to know because while they are saying all attempts will be made to maintain proper social distance between the children, it is not possible if the majority of the students return to the classrooms. There are simply too many students.
This problem of social distancing is at its worst with how children arrive at the schools: on a school bus. School buses in the Wentzville School District are typically filled with between 60-70 students, which can mean 3 children to a seat. As per the Plan, early childhood students and kindergarten through second grade students do not have to wear face masks. This poses a serious problem of exposure. Children at this age are not the most mindful about covering their mouths when coughing or sneezing and, are not all self-disciplined enough to keep hands to themselves or to not put their mouths on certain things or certain things in their mouths. What this means on an elementary school bus is that half of the riders will not be in masks and none of the students, drivers, or aides will be properly socially distanced. The average school bus ride is between twenty to thirty minutes, over the 15 minutes the CDC defines as “close exposure”, which means a sick student has the potential to infect the entire population of the bus. Many drivers are middle aged or older and would be at higher risk of contracting Covid-19. Even with a plan in place to sterilize the buses between routes, it cannot combat the lack of social distancing and protection in this enclosed environment. Once at the schools, these children from one bus obviously do not all share the same classroom, but will spread to their respective grades throughout, thus increasing the chance for exposure to others that weren’t on that particular bus.
The Wentzville School District has put forth an aggressive cleaning and sterilization policy in an attempt to make the schools safe. This is admirable and understandable, but as someone who has worked within the district for many years, it seems completely unsustainable. Classrooms that have different bodies of students utilizing them (art rooms, music rooms, etc.) need to be cleaned before the next class utilizes that room. This makes sense, until you get to the fact that middle school and high school students (and many 6th graders in the elementary schools) change classrooms all day. Each classroom would have to be cleaned six times per day, and each bus in the district disinfected 4-5 times a day or more. The sheer amount of supplies that will be needed at all school locations seems astronomical. What happens if we run out? My experience tells me, the staff will go to the administrator and tell them they are out of said supply, and the administration will tell us to do the best we can. It happens all the time when a standard cannot be met; the show must go on and we will just be expected to figure out how to live with it.
It is my belief that schools will not be closed if they run out of cleaning supplies; they will stay open. What will cause them to close? A death, for certain, that will grab headlines. But there is nothing in Wentzville’s Road Map that tells us what will happen if a case of Covid-19 is diagnosed in our schools. Will the students and staff be quarantined for two weeks? We don’t know. How far will they look to see how many people could have been exposed? We don’t know.
I understand our community’s need to have children in school. People have to work, and not everyone can work from home. People have bills to pay. Some students learn better in school and there is a concern they will fall behind. But to send our children and staff members knowingly into danger and gambling that all our measures will keep everyone safe, is ignorance. Someone will come to school sick. People will be infected. And in all probability, someone exposed will die from being exposed. This is not fear, it is fact. We need to continue at-home education and demand that our state and federal government support us during this time of crisis. It is time for us to stop pretending we can skirt around this and eventually it will go away. Every person is a potential carrier of the illness, regardless of how resiliently the endure it. They can expose others, and as any person working in the education system will tell you, they get exposed to a lot of things by students. Flu’s can spread so quickly through schools that they have to shut down due to sickness. We are sending our children back to schools during a growing pandemic and the start of our regular flu season. We need to make the right choice and demand virtual learning for all students until our infection rates see a month’s worth of steady decline, (per CDC recommendations https://www.cdc.gov/coronavirus/2019-ncov/downloads/php/CDC-Activities-Initiatives-for-COVID-19-Response.pdf) then we can do a partial open, then if everything continues to decline, re-open fully. Demand the protection of your loved ones and support from our state and federal leaders to conquer this crisis the right way.