Photo illustration by Pathfinder Editorial Board
To the Parkway Board of Education,
Sept. 29, you held a regular board meeting that wasn’t so regular. You introduced 18 speakers and two written statements. The video recording of the meeting has 2,000 views. Your community was invested in the decision you would be making.
Parkway Director of Health Services Robin Wallin came armed with statistic after statistic to repeatedly and unbiasedly show that COVID-19 rates among high school students were too high for in-person learning to resume. Below, we’ve listed a few statistics from her Sept. 27 presentation.
Children ages 15-19…
had approximately six times the amount of COVID-19 cases from Sept. 1 to Sept. 14 as children of any other age range.
accounted for approximately 77% of all COVID-19 cases in school-age children in the two weeks preceding Sept. 29.
had a positivity rate of 10.10%. This is double the baseline positivity rate and implies that there are many more undiagnosed cases in the community.
On top of these grossly alarming numbers, we also must take into account that they reflect a distance learning situation. The moment we send students back into classrooms, we accept a lost cause. The district likes to make a case for the shiny new ventilation systems in our buildings; however, the fact remains that no matter how great these systems might be, the virus is transmitted much more easily indoors than out.
Not only does sending students back in classrooms put students and staff directly at risk within the classroom, but it also encourages student interaction outside of school hours. When students’ friends are already going to the same building for in-person school, it makes it even easier to remain in contact with them after school hours in Starbucks parking lots or each others’ basements. This will lead to more cases than we have right now.
We can also assure you that our community will experience another spike in COVID-19 cases among high school students soon. Teens are already planning costumes for their crowded, maskless Halloween gatherings. Just this summer, students decided to party one Tuesday night. All of the students present had to quarantine when some attendees tested positive, resulting in a brief hiatus in the proceedings of athletic camps. On top of this, gatherings are beginning to take place indoors due to the cooler weather, and flu season is fast approaching.
This triage of reasons all imply that our numbers right now pale in comparison to what might lie ahead should we make the switch to in-person learning. Needless to say, Sept. 29, you made the right decision, which makes it all the more disappointing that Oct. 7, you decided to reverse that decision.
The one new piece of data you introduced was using the Fort Zumwalt School District, the Wentzville School District, and the Francis Howell School District as examples of safe return. But St. Charles County, the county each of your comparison districts serve, is seeing a 34.9% increase in COVID-19 cases in the 14-day rolling average chart on the same presentation, coincidentally two to three weeks after these districts resumed in-person school.
This demonstrates that students might not be as susceptible to the virus, but they will accelerate its spread to more vulnerable populations. Teachers and staff are at the frontlines. They are expected to put themselves and their families at risk to be in direct contact with high school students who cannot seem to keep their respiratory droplets to themselves. If we were teachers, we would be scared.
The rest of the data you presented Oct. 7 largely followed the trends presented Sept. 29. The same contradictory nature was apparent in St. Louis County Executive Sam Page’s statements on the spread of COVID-19 among high school students. Sept. 4 he claimed he was “deeply concerned about the explosion of COVID-19 in the 15-to-19-year-old age group” and considered youth sports as a cause for rising infection rates. But he is now recommending a return to in-person learning. Why are our community leaders shifting opinions so suddenly when data hasn’t significantly changed?
You succumbed to the incessant cries and protests of parents and students who were simply being loud. They wanted the district to acknowledge their right to a choice; this right can be exercised when the consequences of the choice don’t negatively affect anybody but the person making a choice. COVID-19 does not allow room for choice. COVID-19 is a highly infectious disease, and you put an entire community at higher risk when you provide people with the choice to learn in-person.
Other outspoken individuals’ arguments in favor of Parkway’s Return to Learn plan— a misleading name which inaccurately implies that no learning took place over online schooling— were based in defense of mental health. These petulant people claimed the lack of socialization that accompanies distance learning directly led to a deterioration in students’ emotional well-being, and that returning to in-person school would solve these problems. This logic is faulty.
Going back to school under the circumstances we face right now will inevitably result in positive cases. These positive cases mean students and staff will have to undergo 14-day isolations and cause many changes to any routine students might try to form at in-person school. This will disrupt the very sense of controllability and predictability that form the foundation of stable mental health.
Furthermore, in-person learning won’t resemble school pre-COVID-19. At the time of posting, lunch will supposedly be split into four sections, and there will only be three students per table. This means students likely won’t get to see their friends. There won’t be any chatting in the halls between classes. Students will be spending 100 minutes in each class and will have to attend from 7:30 a.m. to 2:30 p.m. for a total of three classes and one mandatory study hall.
Mental health is a real problem. We already place a great burden on schools, and school counselors, to handle tough social and emotional situations. We do not provide all the resources that we should as a district to help students create and maintain lifelong personal wellness. We should allocate more funds to this cause, instead of pretending that greenlighting a massive outbreak-waiting-to-happen is giving the mental health crisis the attention and care it deserves. Sending us back to school in-person is not the solution.
We are disappointed, Parkway Board of Education. We are disappointed that you attempted to sway figures in your favor. We are disappointed that you let outspoken parents and students— who are most definitely not appointed pandemic doctors or statisticians— scare you into your final decision. We are disappointed that you turned your back on the facts you championed not even one week before your next meeting.
You let our community down. We need you to rely on the facts and the figures, and analyze them with the human reasoning we hope you possess. With the power to make this decision, you hold the very lives of students, staff and the entire St. Louis community in your hands. With the decision you made, you let them fall right through your fingers.
The Parkway West Pathfinder Editorial Board
All the above statistics were sourced from data presented at the Sept. 29 and Oct. 7 Parkway Board of Education meetings. The presentations from each meeting can be found here and here, respectively. For more information on the meetings, you can visit this website. For weekly updates from Parkway on the COVID-19 situation, you can visit the Community Health Dashboard.