Schools cautiously optimistic on completing semester

File photo.
Adam Rollins
Staff Writer

Wary of the approaching holidays and seemingly inevitable gatherings that could spread COVID-19, schools in Warren County are nevertheless optimistic about finishing a semester of in-person learning.

The current situation in schools is mixed. While several dozen area students have tested positive for the virus, and hundreds of others put on quarantine as a result, school superintendents say almost all the COVID cases originate outside of school.

As of last week, there were more than 300 Warren County R-III students quarantined, according to data from the district. In the Wright City R-II district, close to 100 students are quarantined, said Superintendent Dr. Chris Berger.

Despite those numbers, a relatively small portion of students have actually tested positive for COVID, with a semester total of less than 40 in R-III and 18 in R-II.

“Most of those kids didn’t get the virus at school,” said R-III Superintendent Dr. Gregg Klinginsmith. “We have a lot of kids being quarantined who don’t end up getting sick.”

He said that indicates the safety measures being taken by schools, including mandatory masks and limited intermingling, have prevented the spread of COVID even among close contacts. That gives Klinginsmith hope students can be kept healthy during in-person learning.

Berger echoed that sentiment, saying there is little indication of the virus spreading between students. But if outside exposure is where students are at risk, upcoming holiday gatherings could spell trouble.

“The end of November and December could be awful interesting for us, when you compound it with the normal flu season,” Berger commented.

Staffing is greatest challenge

The greatest chance of school shutdowns isn’t related to students, but to staff. If too many teachers can’t come to school, that could cause all classes to be moved online for several days, administrators said.

Warrenton High School was shut down last Friday and Tuesday because too many staff members were out on quarantine. This is the second such shutdown this year. Klinginsmith said the R-III district doesn’t have enough substitute teachers to cover the quarantines, last week leaving 40 unfilled positions across all schools.

“The staff and administrators have done a great job of filling in and making sure everything is covered throughout the day, but at some point it just becomes too much,” Klinginsmith commented.

He said similar intermittent shutdowns are a continued possibility, but that there will not be a district-wide shutdown unless in-school spread of COVID becomes evident.

Similar challenges have missed the Wright City district thus far, but Berger said staffing has been strained on numerous days.

Hope from governor

Last week, Gov. Mike Parson and the Missouri department of education issued new guidelines about who at school is considered a “close contact.” The guidelines essentially state that if everyone at school is wearing a face mask, only those who get sick need to stay home. 

“That would definitely improve things, no doubt, given that our greatest challenge is quarantining staff identified as close contacts,” said Berger. The Wright City school board is currently considering implementing that policy change.

Klinginsmith said the new policy has been adopted in R-III, and could offer the relief his district needs to keep the school doors open and prevent future staff shortages. However, he said the change means even the youngest students will be required to wear face masks.

“Our goal is to not have to quarantine kids if they’re not sick. We want to keep them at school,” Klinginsmith said.

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