With lots of team effort to plan and apply protocols, the Jefferson City School District and other Cole County schools were successful this school year in educating students while maintaining safety during the COVID-19 pandemic.
As of Friday, JC Schools has reported 506 cumulative COVID-19 cases since early August, including 293 among students and 213 among staff. About 3.6 percent of students and 15 percent of staff were infected.
Since Aug. 1, the Cole County Health Department has reported 7,876 cumulative cases as of Friday. This is about 10.3 percent of Cole County's estimated population, according to the most recent census data.
Cole County Health Department Director Kristi Campbell said JC Schools' COVID-19 cases throughout the school year were "generally low." Contact tracing shows there was not much COVID-19 spread in the schools, and most cases from students were from exposure outside of school, she said.
JC Schools reported 620 cumulative close contacts for cases in the district this school year, including 548 among students and 72 among staff. The Cole County Health Department does not report close contacts.
Chezney Schulte, communicable disease coordinator for the Cole County Health Department, said the district's low number of cases and close contacts is likely because the district's protocols worked.
"One of the safest places, probably, in the community may have been the school setting where they were in structured environments," Schulte said.
COVID-19 spread in school-aged children typically comes from group gatherings outside of school, Schulte said.
"That seems to be where we all forget the basic strategies that are used to prevent your exposure to COVID-19 and decrease the spread," she said. "I think that in that structured school space, we actually saw very little spread from person to person, which we're very thankful for."
Another likely reason for the low number of cases and close contacts, she said, is less than 10 percent of COVID-19 cases in the United States have been among children ages 5-17, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
Throughout the school year, the number of cases in the district seemed to correlate with any increases or decreases in Cole County at large.
Similar to Cole County at large, JC Schools had an increase in COVID-19 cases in October and November but has had a steady decline in cases since.
Starting in April 2020, all Cole County school administrators — public and parochial — met with each other and Cole County Health Department staff at least once a month — sometimes twice a month — over the past year to discuss plans as a group and stay up to date on emerging COVID-19-related issues and local trends.
"This helped to create consistency among districts, and we hope increased confidence in all of our Cole County schools that we were communicating regularly and working together," JC Schools Communications Director Ryan Burns said.
They met with Campbell and Schulte as well as sometimes nurses or other staff, depending on what their schedules were and what the topic of discussion was.
The conversation changed over the year, from what COVID-19 is and if the schools would have to shut down for the remainder of the 2019-20 school year to how to hold events, summer school and school for the 2021-22 school year while decreasing the risk of exposure, to COVID-19 tests and vaccines.
Schulte said these meetings allowed school administrators to apply similar procedures to their schools. While there were differences such as in age groups and class sizes, they worked together to apply similar strategies that worked for their schools.
"While every student body is different and while every administrative team knows their own school body best, they really tried to come at the COVID-19 situation with a group effort with strategies that weren't going to be drastically different from one school body to another," she said.
When providing input, the health department would consider the number of cases in the county, trends they've seen from contact tracing and what hospital staff report for health care capacity, supplies and resources, Schulte said.
Cole County school administrators also considered guidance from the Missouri Department of Elementary and Secondary Education, Department of Health and Senior Services, CDC and Missouri State High School Activities Association when making decisions, from reopening the buildings to planning events.
"All of those resources pooled together was great to just learn so much from each organization and different entities that really bring a lot to the to the playing field," Schulte said.
She said the CDC tends to be more strict in its guidance, so it's important to also consider the number of cases and level of spread in the community when making decisions.
During the statewide school closure and stay-at-home order in spring 2020, schools were limited to what events could be held because of limitations for large group gatherings.
Last year, many schools, including JC Schools, canceled prom due to COVID-19 concerns. Many schools also postponed graduations last year with hope cases would decrease. JC Schools postponed graduation three times because of COVID-19 and once because of weather, so Jefferson City High School didn't have graduation until August.
Schools were closed for the remainder of the 2019-21 school year at the order of Gov. Mike Parson, and there was a statewide stay-at-home order through April.
"Those orders drove a lot of our decision-making," Burns said. "As time went by and schools reopened, we became more confident in the district's mitigation efforts to successfully limit exposure to any positive cases within the school environment, and we became more creative with our approach to host events that complied with our re-entry plan."
The key priorities were increased sanitation, social distancing, staff and student screening measures, personal protective equipment, limited visitor access to buildings, virtual education options and procedures for COVID-19 infections.
JC Schools also offered virtual education through Launch, a virtual learning program. As of May 17, JC Schools had about 600 students enrolled in virtual education, compared to an estimated 1,555 at the start of the school year, according to district officials.
The district didn't change any of its COVID-19 procedures throughout the school year.
"We have been very pleased that our 'Back to JC Schools COVID-19 Re-entry Plan' worked extremely well, as designed, to limit the exposure of any positive cases that did occur within the school environment," Burns said. "This is demonstrated by a lack of any major outbreaks or need to close schools due to illness amongst staff or students."
JC Schools is one of the largest school districts in the state to remain open during the 2020-21 school year, according to district officials.
"It has required a great deal of commitment on the part of our staff, students, and families to follow the COVID protocols," Burns said. "We are so thankful for their efforts."
The district's middle and high schools shut down in the fall because of staffing issues due to a lack of substitute teachers as well as staff being quarantined from exposure to the virus. Contact tracing indicated the close contacts were mostly exposed outside of school, according to district officials.
District administrators applied the district's COVID-19 re-entry protocols to all their event-decision making.
With cases decreasing and schools being more comfortable with their mitigation efforts, students didn't have to miss out on prom this year. Some Cole County schools, including JC Schools, had precautions such as mask requirements; others didn't have any precautions.
This year, every Cole County high school has had or will have graduations this month. While some of the ceremonies are similar to last year's with COVID-19 procedures in place, others are back to normal.
JC Schools had attendance limits for outdoor athletic events in the fall, but administration lifted the limits for the spring semester and decreased the limits for indoor events.
District administration also prohibited all field trips this school year.
"This protocol was put in place as a district-wide safety measure in order to ensure that students do not travel to other locations that may not have the same level of COVID-19 precautions in place during the school day," Burns said.
The decision to cancel all field trips, even outdoor trips with precautions in place, was to remain consistent, Burns said.
"In a year with so much uncertainty and so many new protocols, it has been important for the application of our protocols to be consistent in order to provide stability to our staff, students and families," she said.
While field trips were prohibited, travel for sports and activities was not because "academics are considered a non- voluntary component of a student's education while co-curricular activity participation is voluntary," according to the district's COVID-19 Re-entry Plan.
"This is why there is a difference between the approach to in-school educational activities (non-voluntary) as compared to co-curricular (voluntary) activities such as sports/activities travel," Burns said. "Even if participation in a field trip is considered voluntary, the class is a part of the non-voluntary educational component."
Schulte said all Cole County schools "did a wonderful job" in their efforts and were effective in maintaining safety while providing education and extracurricular activities this school year.
"They certainly had a lot of responsibility this past year, and I think they handled it very gracefully," Schulte said.
"It's a balance," she said. "They have to weigh out the safety of the kids with the guidance they've been given and then also weighing out and balancing all of the comments from parents, because we just have to realize that we're not going to make everybody happy.
"We just have to do the right thing and know that that's what's most important to protect the safety of the kids."
Since Cole County is "extremely low" in positive cases, summer school is a good time to loosen some restrictions, Schulte said.
"Maybe let that be an adjustment period to learn what next school year is going to look like and what guidances can we loosen and still be successful," she said. "I'm hoping a nice transition period into the fall school year."
JC Schools released its summer school COVID-19 plan May 14. District administrators assessed updated guidance from local, state and federal health care and education entities to determine what changes were safe to make, according to district officials.
Summer school starts June 7. The district's current COVID-19 procedures will remain in place through Thursday, the last day of school.
JC Schools will still follow its main current protocols for summer school, including social distancing, increased sanitation, personal protective equipment, staff and student screening measures, limited visitor access to buildings and procedures for COVID-19 infections.
However, parts of the overall plan have been loosened.
Schools will no longer closely monitor thermal cameras for temperatures; students will not leave their primary classrooms for art, music and library classes; masks will no longer be required during outdoor recess; some schools will allow students to eat meals in the cafeteria again; some non-essential furniture can be moved back into the classroom; and the district will no longer directly offer virtual education for the summer.
The virtual education application window for the 2021-22 school year will open in August.
The rest of the current protocols will remain the same for summer school, but the plan "is subject to change if local conditions warrant a tightening or loosening of any of the proposed guidelines," according to the district's document outlining the plan.
"JC Schools will continue to assess local conditions and guidance from state and federal agencies over the next few months to determine whether any further changes will be made to our COVID-19 plan for the 2021-2022 school year," Burns said. "We will strive to provide an update to families by mid-summer."
DESE updated its guidance for schools Thursday, loosening guidance on temperature checks, disinfecting, social distancing and visitor access. Guidance on hand washing and masks remain the same.
DESE and DHSS will continue revising and updating its Missouri Reopening and Operating Guidance document throughout the summer, as needed, to provide state guidance for the 2021-22 school year, according to DESE.