Schools sticking with COVID protocols

By Mike Genet

Local health officials and schools are not immediately embracing the new state guidelines for Missouri schools announced Thursday by Gov. Mike Parson – guidelines designed to lower the necessary quarantines for teachers and students when a positive COVID-19 case arises.

Local schools continue to require face masks and follow other pandemic protocols.

The new guidelines issued by the Department of Elementary and Secondary Educations say that appropriate mask wearing in schools can prevent individuals from being identified as close contacts and eliminate the 14-day quarantine as recommended by the federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. If the person diagnosed and the close contact both wore masks during the exposure time in school, the close contact would not need to quarantine.

Before, students or teachers who came into close contact with someone exposed to the virus, regardless of mask usage, needed to quarantine for 14 days. But DESE Commissioner Margie Vandeven said Thursday that is “not sustainable” for Missouri schools, in large part because of staffing shortages, and not all school districts around the state have mask requirements.

Parson said the state modified its guidance because transmission in schools appears to be low and masks continue to effectively slow the virus’ spread.

All school districts in Eastern Jackson County, however, have had mask requirements since they reopened in late August or September, and none have decided to pivot back to all virtual learning, as everyone did in March.

In a message sent Thursday to district families, Fort Osage Superintendent Jason Snodgrass said, “We are working with various health officials to determine if any changes will be made to our quarantine procedures. At this time, we will continue our current procedures for contact tracing, and all those currently in quarantine will continue that process as originally determined.”

“Regardless of the decision made around quarantine guidelines, we will continue to implement mask wearing and other safety protocols in our schools.”

Similarly, Independence School District spokesperson Jana Corrie said, “We are reviewing the guidance but at this time are not making any immediate changes.”

Blue Springs District spokesperson Katie Woolf echoed that sentiment, saying the district for now would continue to follow Jackson County and CDC guidelines regarding quarantines.

In a statement Thursday after the governor’s announcement, the Jackson County Health Department said it “strongly agrees that vigilant and comprehensive mask-wearing will reduce the risk of transmission,” but the new guidance doesn’t align with the CDC’s guidance, and the county Health Department will maintain its current quarantine and isolation guidelines.

In addition, the department says, the metro region is dealing with uncontrolled community spread of COVID-19 that can compromise the regional health system and hamper the ability of public health workers to effectively trace cases.

Grain Valley Deputy Superintendent Brad Welle said the state’s new guidance likely won’t change how his district operates because of how quickly the county responded.

“When it comes to contact tracing and how we respond to a positive case in school, we’ve followed the county’s guidance,” Welle said.

Grain Valley has been struggling with staff shortages and student absences enough recently that Superintendent Marc Snow told families that 100 percent virtual learning might soon be necessary if current trends continue. But while the new state guidelines theoretically could curb shortages in some areas, Welle said it wouldn’t be a full answer for Grain Valley.

“Yesterday was a tough day, and the numbers we saw are not sustainable,” he said Friday. “But most of our staff are out because of close contact or cases outside of school. It would provide us some staffing relief, but it wouldn’t totally solve that problem for us.”

Fort Osage spokesperson Stephanie Smith said there have been some days when the district has been challenged to find enough substitutes, “But our staff has been great at pitching in wherever needed to fill the void,” she said, and the district has put more energy into recruiting and retaining substitute teachers. 

Smith said the Board of Education recently approved a pay increase for substitute teachers, as well as an incentive for working seven more or more assignments in a month.

The new state guidelines come at the same time that county Health Department and other metro area public health agencies are pleading for greater vigilance from citizens on basic pandemic precautions and have recommended possible additional restrictions.

In a joint statement released Friday morning, public health directors said the recent surge in metro area cases is straining contact tracing ability, turnaround time for tests and hospital bed capacity. 

After case and hospitalization rates died down in the late spring into the summer, area leaders slowly lifted stay-at-home orders. Cases and hospitalizations have generally trended upward in recent months, though.

“We fully understand the impact that stay-at-home orders have on our local economy,” the statement says. “However, COVID-19 transmission cannot continue to rage out of control in our community given the severe strain on our health and medical systems.”

“Further uncontrolled spread of this disease poses a serious threat to our businesses and local economy, creates a risk for our children’s education and well-being, and forces hospitals to possibly ration care, which would have very negative health consequences for the entire community,” the statement continues.

The public health directors said, at a minimum, cities should:

• Continue consistent mask mandates for all activities outside the home and broaden enforcement.

• Limit social or other in-person gatherings to further reduce community spread of the disease

• Require bars and restaurants to close by 10 p.m. and/or implement greater requirements on occupancy limits for indoor and outdoor spaces.

• Place further limitations on outdoor and indoor entertainment and recreational venues.

• Require recreational and youth sporting events to significantly limit attendance and ensure social distancing.

• Require businesses and organizations to ensure that the 6 feet of social distancing is maintained for all public spaces.

Individually, the directors say, citizens should work from home, conduct business virtually and do curbside service if possible, wear masks outside of one’s immediate household, try to avoid close gatherings greater than 10 people, quarantine after large gatherings and continue to wash hands regularly, mask up and social distance.