High Risk High School

Students chose virtual or in-person learning

Parkway Central students are encouraged to follow the central six.

Photo courtesy of Tim McCarthy.

Parkway Central students are encouraged to follow the central six.

Abby Prywitch, Editor-in-Chief

The halls at Parkway Central are filled again with students for the first time since before spring break last school year. Things look a little different though. Smiles and laughter are hidden under face masks. Due to current circumstances, certain new safety measures have been added to make the return to building plan safe for staff and students.

Students were given the option to return to in-person learning or remain all virtual through Parkway’s Virtual Campus. For both in-person and virtual learners school will start at 7:35 a.m and go until 2:25 p.m.  Around 28% of Central High students chose to remain virtual so fewer kids will be in the building.

While in a hybrid schedule, students are split into two groups: group one and group two. The first group of students went back on Nov. 10 and the second group’s first day in-person was Nov. 10. High school students will remain on a blended learning schedule for now, but Parkway hopes to switch over to a full-time schedule some time during the second quarter. By having a blended schedule, the hope is it will allow the students to have a smoother transition back to school.

Principal Tim McCarthy believes that students who chose virtual or in-person will receive the same quality of education because they are going to all have Parkway teachers.  Some things will be different. For instance, in a science class you can do some different things in-person with access to the labs, but he is confident that as a district they will be able to continue to provide high-quality education to all students whether they are in-person or the virtual campus.

Originally, the school board decided that high school students would remain virtual, but they changed that decision after St. Louis County Executive Sam Page recommended high schoolers go back. 

I think the board of education and Dr. Marty are just in a really difficult position and I think that is the case for districts all over the country. It’s just really challenging. I am obviously supportive. I think people get frustrated about the timeline of the decision which I get but part of what the board, Dr. Marty, and the district are trying to do is be proactive yet also remain responsive to the data… “

Parkway has been implementing a variety of strategies and mitigation approaches to help keep the schools as safe as possible.

“First and foremost and this is really hard for some students and staff, but if you’re exhibiting symptoms stay home. Just continuing to preach that message,” McCarthy said.

This past summer, all Parkway Schools changed filters on HVAC equipment. This upgraded system makes sure that fresh air from outside is constantly being circulated in the building throughout the day. 

Dr. Robin Wallin is the Director of Health Services in the Parkway School District. Wallin has been leading the Missouri School Nurse Leader COVID-19 Collaborative. According to Wallin, symptoms have been divided into two categories: low-risk and high-risk. Low-risk symptoms include a fever, sore throat, congestion/runny nose, headache, body aches, and nausea/vomiting/diarrhea. High-risk symptoms are cough, difficulty breathing, and loss of taste/smell. 

If a student has one low-risk symptom they will be sent home and will be allowed to return after being improved for 24 hours. If they have two low-risk symptoms or one high-risk symptoms, Parkway will be requiring a medical note to come back. Wallin believes that in a lot of cases a doctor will do a COVID-19 test just to rule that out. 

“So a lot more visits to the doctor,” Wallin said, for students or staff with any illness symptoms.

A lot of staff members in the district are trained in case investigation which is what Parkway is calling contact tracing. At least one administrator at every building and every school are trained which totals to be around 90 people in the district. The case investigators went through a six-hour training from John Hopkins. These investigators will get the initial information like finding any close contacts, pulling bus and class rosters, and interviewing the person who is sick so they can get more information. 

“They will send that information to myself and another school nurse who are working on this and we’re calling ourselves contact tracing coordinators and we’re interfacing with the health department. So in collaboration with the health department, we will be making those decisions. Not by ourselves,” Wallin said.

One of the various strategies that have been implemented at Central High is that there is assigned seating in every class and at lunch.

“Part of that is because of the responsibility that we are going to have to do contact tracing if there is an issue and we have to respond. So we have to know where kids are and who is around them so we can notify those students,” McCarthy said.

Wallin said that situations vary tremendously and they have been seeing that through sports. 

 “For example, a student-athlete who was positive but nobody on the team gets quarantined because of the nature of the sport and the ability to socially distance,” Wallin said.  “Or there may be another student-athlete where the whole team gets quarantined just by nature of the sport. Every situation is different and we will definitely be using the health department’s guidance.”

If you have been exposed to someone who has tested positive for COVID-19 and was less than six feet apart for more than 15 minutes, it is considered close contact.

If you test positive for COVID-19, you are required to isolate for ten days, but if you are identified as  close contact with someone who is positive you are required to quarantine for 14 days from the last day of contact.

“That’s what is going to be incredibly disruptive I think because that could leave you missing two weeks of school or even longer,” Wallin said. 

In high schools where students are switching classes, it could potentially cause more kids to have to quarantine due to one positive case.

“You could see how we would have lots of people that would need to quarantine just based on one person having COVID because particularly in high school where you are switching classes so you might have three or four different groups of students [where] the person was sitting around in different classes so it could end up being a lot of people,” she said.

Wallin believes the key is to spend as little time as possible with someone and keeping your distance so you can avoid having to go into quarantine. 

Wallin said the district is finding that students and staff that are ending up in quarantine not because of exposures at school, but due to exposures in the community. The close contact rule does not just apply at school, but it is also applied in the community. The best way to put a barrier between yourself and the virus is to maintain social distance, wear your mask, wash your hands, and stay home when you are sick.

  “All of these things build on top of each other to make a safer environment, but it definitely has to continue into the community because you might follow all of the rules in school but then go to a party or out to a restaurant and sit down with your friends around a table… This is an era when we can’t do this. If one person in that group ends up positive the whole group has to quarantine,” Wallin said.

Parkway is fortunate enough to have a registered nurse in each building who will be doing assessments for anyone who has symptoms. 

“We’re asking everybody to stay home if they’re sick. Like seriously stay home. In the past, people would come to work and school with a cold or a slight cough but in this day and age if you do that you are going to get sent home,” Wallin said. 

All staff and students are required to wear cloth face coverings at school. Parkway will have extra masks in the buildings in case a student forgets one or if they get dirty throughout the day. Wallin suggests that students bring more than one mask to school in case they need another one throughout the day.

There is a daily health screening that families and staff are being asked to fill out before they arrive at school each day.

“It’s an honor system. I feel like I can’t be in charge of holding people accountable to this. There are 20,000 people between staff and students in our school district and it’s just more than we can do,” Wallin said. “So we really need a commitment on the part of our families and staff to go through the health screening every day. We provide this tool to make it super easy and it’s just a daily habit and a reminder.”

Wallin can not tell who has filled it out, as they are not collecting email addresses when it is submitted. All she can see is how many people respond. If they find people are coming to school and work sick, Wallin says maybe they will need to look at a more accountable tool in that case.

“I hope we don’t have to do that because that’s expensive and less trusting; I just want to trust our community to do the right thing,” Wallin said.

Another precaution that has been put in place at Central High is making the hallways one-way. A walk to class that used to be a very short distance might now be a longer distance. For example, students going from world languages to the history hallway won’t have such a short walk anymore. 

 “When we talked about distancing and a return to school plan and we thought about passing time, what was the first place I thought of? The T…So we’re going to do one-way hallways to try and alleviate some of that [shoulder to shoulder contact],” McCarthy said. 

If you walk into a classroom now things look a little different. McCarthy said over the past several years Parkway teachers have been focusing on cooperative learning through Kagan Strategies. Those strategies include things like desks in groups of four, think, pair, share and talking to face/ shoulder partners.

“COVID and Kagan don’t go together. It’s certainly to start or for some time we have to go back to desks in rows, students all facing one-way, etc. and so different changes are going to resonate, but it’s certainly going to look and feel different than it did when we were here in early March,” McCarthy said.

McCarthy believes a challenge specific to Central or any other school building that is over 30 years old is that some of the classrooms are small. 20 kids in the new science rooms will feel different than 20 kids in the older part of the building in the English and history wings. 

“And that’s where I think those blended days were going to start on the 10th with Group 1 and Group 2 will be helpful to just adjust to that. So a class roster isn’t going to be perfectly split between group one and group two, but I think those days as we come back into the building and just try to regroup with what we do and how we function in the school day to day,” McCarthy said.

One phrase McCarthy says every year over the announcements during various drills is “our collective security is our collective responsibility.”  

“I would say our collective health and well-being is our individual and collective responsibility. So what we ask you to do as far as the mask-wearing, assigned seats, hand washing, distancing when appropriate just really take that to heart, understand why we are asking you to do that and please commit yourself to following those strategies because the more we do that the better chance we’re gonna have to stay in school in-person for the rest of the school year,” McCarthy said.

McCarthy asks that students who have been at Parkway Central before this year be particularly conscious of the students who are brand new whether they be a freshman or the other grades. Those students’ first day in the building looks a little different this year in Nov. He asks for students to just reach out to, welcome them, and connect with them.

“Whether you chose to return in-person or whether you chose to continue in virtual please know that we are here to continue to support you and to continue to connect to you and with you,” McCarthy said.”