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Missouri schools told: Mask decisions should be made at local level

by Layne Stracener | August 3, 2021 at 4:45 a.m. | Updated August 3, 2021 at 11:39 a.m.
FILE - In this May 18, 2021 file photo, fifth graders wear face masks are seated at proper social distancing spacing during a music class at the Milton Elementary School in Rye, N.Y. As more children go back to the physical classroom, families are expected to spend robustly on a wide range of items, particularly trendy clothing for the critical back-to-school season, according to one key spending measure. (AP Photo/Mary Altaffer, File)

While the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention now recommends all students and staff wear masks, Missouri's school guidance states decisions on mask wearing should be made at the local level.

The Missouri Department of Elementary and Secondary Education and the Department of Health and Senior Services updated their school COVID-19 guidance document Friday in response to the CDC's new mask guidance.

The guidance said Missouri acknowledges the CDC's new guidance but "believes such decisions should be made at the discretion of local boards of education, in consultation with local public health officials."

It recommends local entities consider community transmission and local positivity rates when making these decisions. On Monday, Cole County had 284 new COVID-19 cases in the past seven days, a daily average of 41 cases and a seven-day positivity rate of 19.8 percent, according to DHSS.

"As was the case last school year, because Missouri is a local control state, decisions about COVID mitigation strategies including mask wearing policies for the 2021-22 school year are made by local boards of education and local school leaders, as there is a great deal of local context that goes into those decisions," DESE Communications Officer Mallory McGowin said.

Decisions that "fail to adequately protect public health and safety are subject to interdiction by a local public health agency, up to and including closing a school," DHSS Communications Director Lisa Cox said.

Cox said the CDC reversing its mask guidance has further confused people about the importance of vaccination, "making the public health response even harder than it has previously been."

"We believe that schools and public health agencies must continue to take active steps to educate, support, and engage citizens that are willing to be vaccinated, but believe local decisions remain the best venue for doing so," she said.

Per a federal CDC order, masks are required on school buses and other forms of public transportation for passengers and drivers, regardless of vaccination status.

The rest of DESE's guidance remains the same. It recommends schools use multiple prevention strategies, promote vaccinations, space students 3 feet apart in classrooms if possible and screen test those who are not vaccinated to identify infected people.

These recommendations could be updated again before the 2021-22 school year.

"The body of research work and science regarding COVID-19 variant transmission continues to grow each week," the guidance document states. "Transmission of the Delta variant and other possible future variants may be exceptionally different from what was experienced in previous COVID-19 outbreaks. Therefore, this guidance may continue to be modified as more data and information is learned."

The guidance document said it's important to note the recommendations are issued from the state level and school districts should work with local public health agencies to determine appropriate mitigation strategies at the local level, as the delta variant "appears to be more quickly transmissible, more impactful on unvaccinated populations, and affecting more adolescents than what was experienced with COVID-19 last year."

Cole County school and district leaders are monitoring local COVID-19 conditions to determine plans for the 2021-22 school year.

The Jefferson City School District expects to release its COVID-19 plan to families and staff this week.

Helias Catholic High School in Jefferson City's original plan was to keep students facing the same direction in class with desks as far apart as possible but to not require masks. School leaders expect to add restrictions and release an updated plan to staff and families today or Wednesday, Principal Spencer Allen said.

The Blair Oaks R-2 School District in Wardsville and Cole County R-5 School District in Eugene will continue to monitor local conditions and expect to complete plans once it gets closer to the first day of school, district officials said.

Blair Oaks Superintendent Jim Jones said he hopes protocols will be minor but still reflect the level of community transmission. He said he expects the approved plan to provide flexibility to meet potential changes in conditions.

Calvary Lutheran High School in Jefferson City will share its plan with staff and families Aug. 12 at its back-to-school night, though it may be released sooner. Lighthouse Preparatory Academy in Jefferson City does not plan to have any restrictions.

In early July, Cole County R-1 School District Superintendent Perry Gorrell said the district planned to not require masks but continue to social distance and keep students in cohorts. The News Tribune was unsuccessful in its attempts to reach Gorrell to find out if this plan has changed since then.

The Cole County Health Department and all Cole County school leaders meet regularly to ensure they are up to date on local conditions. School and district leaders said they will continue to monitor COVID-19 conditions and guidance and make changes to the plans if they feel it's necessary.

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