New Data Results in Reevaluation of Mitigation Strategies


Media by Marin Ellington (she/her)

RSD parents cheer as a young boy returns to his seat after speaking out against required masks in school during the patron comments section of the Board of Education (BOE) meeting Thursday, Nov. 18, 2021. At the BOE meeting on Thursday, Dec. 16, 2021, the BOE voted to move to a mask recommended policy starting second semester. Interim superintendent Dr. Tim Ricker said that according to new data, however, this decision has the potential to be reconsidered. “If this spike is like what they saw in Europe and in South Africa that is would possibly come in very quickly in the United States and then it could dissipate quickly,” Dr. Ricker said.

A virtual Special Board meeting Tuesday, Jan. 11, revisited the Rockwood Safe Together plan and voted to extend RSD’s mask-required policy until the Thursday, Feb. 3, BOE meeting. 

Though the Board of Education (BOE) voted at a meeting on Thursday, Dec. 16, 2021, to move to a mask-recommended policy starting Tuesday, Jan. 18, the end of winter break and return to school Monday, Jan. 3, saw 1,337 new reported COVID-19 cases district wide.

Principal Dr. Steve Hankins said both teacher and student attendance has significantly decreased as the number of COVID-19 cases have increased after returning from winter break. The overall student attendance rate was at about 85 percent the week following the return to school. 

“You’ve got Omicron that’s out, a new variant that’s very highly contagious, and we’re coming out of a time when a lot of families got together,” Dr. Hankins said.

Before the break, Dr. Hankins said a typical week would average 5-10 reported COVID-19 cases. However, upon the return, more than 100 students stayed home, either confirmed positive or symptomatic. 

“One good thing that’s happened from this, a lot of kids as well as teachers, when they’re starting to see symptoms they’re staying home,” Dr. Hankin said. “We probably have more kids home right now, especially that aren’t technically positive COVID, because they’re still waiting to get a test, but they’re staying home.”

Though the number of teacher absences has not reached new heights, Dr. Hankins said, an even more drastic substitute teacher shortage is being faced by the district upon the return. 

In addition to other teachers filling in during their off hours, other faculty members such as hall monitors and parking lot attendants have had to step up to fill in classrooms. Dr. Hankins said it is like solving a giant puzzle each morning.

“We’ve got amazing teachers here, but I’m also very aware that’s taking time out of their day for their own students and stuff they’ve got to get done,” Dr. Hankins said. “I also realize that we can’t sustain this forever.”

MHS has not been the only school district feeling the impact of such an increase in absenteeism, however. Parkway School District sent a letter to parents preparing them for the possibility of a return to virtual learning, and a few private schools have begun to close down.

The Department of Elementary and Secondary Education (DESE), however, has prepared for such instances by allotting up to 36 hours of Alternative Methods of Instruction (AMI) per school year should the need arise. 

This allows for schools to continue to provide learning opportunities without having to make up in-person school hours that are lost or canceled in emergency situations.

“We are certainly aware of the workforce shortages cases of COVID and periods of quarantine are creating in public schools, as is the case in many other businesses and industries,” Mallory McGowin, chief communications officer for DESE said. “DESE continues to monitor the current situation.”

While a district is allowed to use more than the allotted 36 hours, they would not be able to claim attendance during these additional hours and it would not count toward the required 1,044 hours of instruction per year.

“We know school leaders and educators are doing what they can locally to keep their doors open, knowing in-person learning is often what is best for Missouri’s students,” McGowin said.

Interim superintendent Dr. Tim Ricker said he feels similarly, as RSD plans to try to keep students in-person at all costs and does not see a return to virtual in the future.

“We’ve also been able to get better data as we came back on Monday from the winter break, and looking at that data gives us a better idea of if individual buildings need to pivot and do more strategies for mitigation or if other buildings are hotspots,” Dr. Ricker said.

Dr. Ricker said the district will be moving day-by-day when considering the data and week-by-week when considering whether or not any mitigation strategies need to be changed. 

“If in fact the board wants to make some changes they have the ability to do that and I will thoroughly support them. That’s what they’re elected to do is to represent the community,” Dr. Ricker said. “It’s going to be a neverending change process from here on out.”

Though numbers have gone up, Ricker said COVID-19 has not been the sole reason for the increased number of absences. Influenza and quarantining based on exposure rather than positivity has also been cause for missing school.

“Education is long. That’s a lifelong endeavor,” Dr. Ricker said. “Keeping in mind the safety and the health of our students and our staff, schools are pretty safe places to be, and I think you would see the medical experts and all of the experts I’ve listened to both at the state, federal, national level believe that kids need to be in school.