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Studies encourage in-person learning as St. Louis-area districts prepare for second semester

The study even says schools can safely reopen, even with high transmission, if they're following the right safety protocols

MEHLVILLE, Mo. — Nearly 10 months into the COVID-19 pandemic, scientists continue to learn and share more about the virus and the best ways to prevent it from spreading. 

The last few months of 2020 were plagued with plans from school districts doing their best to roll out the best options to keep students engaged, while also keeping them safe. Many districts ended the first semester with some sort of at-home/virtual hybrid with high schools students mostly, if not totally, learning from home. 

"He went from being an A-B, sometimes C student to having D's and F's," Susie Brockmeier said. 

Brockmeier's son, Jalen, is a senior at Mehlville High School. She said he was excited to be able to return for two days of in-person learning late last semester, but it only lasted for a couple days before the school district decided to go all-virtual for high school students. 

On Jan. 19, the district will welcome back high school students for two days of in-person learning, alternating days based on last name, and keep middle schoolers on a similar schedule while bringing back elementary students for in-person learning five days a week. 

"He's excited," Brockmeier said. "He's ready to go back. He's been ready to go back."

Last week, the district released its plan and referenced this study from Brown University as well as reports of declining case numbers. 

The study references its own recommendation, from July, to close schools and says researchers changed course now that they have more information. The study even says schools can safely reopen, even with high transmission, if they're following the right safety protocols. 

A spokesperson for the district also said the district used this study from the American Academy of Pediatrics. In it, the president of the academy states that opening schools will not significantly impact virus transmission and that children "absolutely need" to be at school for overall development.

Maghen Riek agrees with the latter.

"It also affects their social and emotional well-being," Riek said. "I think they need to be with their peers, and they need to have that interaction."

Riek has an eighth-grader in the Mehlville School District, and she said being in school for two days a week last semester helped him. 

Her daughter, who is a senior in the district, will return for two days of in-person learning next Monday. 

"It's kind of been a weird past two years for us," Riek said.

Riek's oldest daughter graduated last spring, in the thick of the pandemic. 

"It's kind of interesting to hear the two of them talk and compare what they've missed."

While there are multiple new studies about the opening schools, not all are conclusive. This one, from the National Center for Research on Education Access and Choice, states that it's safe to reopen schools, with safety protocols, in counties where there are fewer than 44 COVID-19 hospitalizations per 100,000 people a week. The study's published data doesn't show any counties in the 5 On Your Side viewing area meeting that mark in recent weeks. However, the study also says counties where hospitalizations were high over the summer are inconclusive for the study. 

For Bromeier, it's about having a choice. 

"If my kid wears a mask and does what he's supposed to do, let me make the choice," Brockmeier said. "We do our part when we're out in the community."

5 On Your Side published this story last week, when many students returned from winter break, about how other area districts are handling the second semester.