Teachers union asks state to track, report COVID-19 cases
One of the state's largest teacher unions wants the Missouri Department of Elementary and Secondary Education to track – and publicly report – all the COVID-19 exposures logged in public schools.
The Missouri National Education Association called on Gov. Mike Parson to require all districts to track COVID-19 cases and make that information available through a public registry.
A letter sent Wednesday to Margie Vandeven, the state's education commissioner, asks for the state's education department, referred to as DESE, to collect that information and create an up-to-date public exposure report.
"To make the best decision possible, parents and educators must have accurate and timely information about COVID-19 exposures in schools," wrote Phil Murray, president of the Missouri NEA, in the letter. "However, there is no centralized repository of COVID-19 information for listing COVID-19 incidents in schools, nor is there a requirement for districts to publicly report any COVID-19 information."
In the letter, also sent to the Missouri Board of Education, Missouri NEA asked that the following information be included:
• The specific school building or school activity where the exposure occurred.
• The date of the COVID-19 incident.
• The number of students or staff exposed.
• Actions the school district is taking to inform parents and staff.
• Safety precautions the district is implementing to limit exposure and spread to others.
Missouri NEA noted the 2020-21 school year started as the state "enters the sixth month of the pandemic" and families were asked to select between in-person, virtual or hybrid learning models.
"Parents are weighing the potential risk of exposure to COVID-19 against the benefits of available educational options," Murray wrote. "Many educators are considering the same risks and benefits as they make decisions for their own families. These decisions are not made lightly and involve a spectrum of difficult choices."
The News-Leader has reached out to DESE for comment, which responded "school districts and charter schools are required to report this information" to both the public health department as well as the Missouri Department of Health and Senior Services, or DHSS.
DESE noted DHSS and health departments "will be able to track COVID-19 cases in schools, and they are working on making this information public-facing." However, the state education department noted: "There are concerns amongst certain districts about protecting student and staff privacy."
DESE also stated the request from Missouri NEA has been forwarded to DHSS.
In an effort to illustrate its point, Missouri NEA released a "COVID-19 Exposures and Closures" report detailing 59 incidents of COVID-19 exposures in schools and school-related activities.
The information in the report was culled from educators, parents, districts and media reports.
Of the 59 incidents singled out by the teacher union, there were many in the southwest part of the state. They were in Springfield as well as Branson, Carthage, Joplin, Laclede County, Monett, Nixa, Ozark, Republic and Webb City.
Springfield, the state's largest district, recently announced it will provide a weekly count of COVID-19 cases. A smattering of area districts also plan to do the same.
Murray, in the news release, said the Missouri NEA acknowledged its COVID-19 report is incomplete.
"It is extremely distressing because we know it doesn’t capture the true scope of school-related exposures, and signals the potential for increased risk as children return to school.”