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The Missouri Department of Elementary and Secondary Education recently updated its COVID-19 recommendations for schools, loosening guidance on screening, disinfecting, social distancing and visitor access.

The guidance, created with the Department of Health and Senior Services, was updated May 20.

While screening, disinfecting, social distancing and applying protocols for visitor access are still recommended, the updated guidance is not as strict.

The guidance on masks, hand-washing and strategies for symptoms and positive cases in schools remains the same. DESE recommends schools continue to track COVID-19 cases and prioritize hand washing.

Tracking COVID-19 cases may be the most important factor in determining if a change to protocols is necessary, according to DESE.

DESE recommends schools follow guidance from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, which released an updated Guidance for Preparing for a Safe Return to School in March, emphasizing all schools should have prevention strategies and prioritize masks and social distancing.

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The CDC still recommends requiring masks for all students and staff at school because students younger than 12 are not yet eligible for vaccination.

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.

The following includes the changes made to the guidance:

Screening

DESE and DHSS still recommend schools educate parents on COVID-19 symptoms and ask them to screen their child before school, but the guidance now states temperature checks are of low sensitivity.

Children should still be visually inspected for signs and symptoms of illness as they enter the school or classroom, and school staff should self-screen at home. But additional screening at school has "proven to be labor-intensive and often does not provide conclusive results," according to DESE.

Disinfecting

Recent data suggests the risk of transmission of COVID-19 on hard surfaces is low, and a surface exposure has less than a 1 in 10,000 chance of causing an infection, according to the CDC, so DESE removed its guidance that suggested disinfecting recess or physical education equipment between uses or separating it by cohort to reduce the need for cleaning.

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Cleaning high-touch surfaces and shared objects once a day is usually enough to sufficiently remove viruses that may be on surfaces unless someone who has been in the school is confirmed or suspected to have COVID-19, according to the CDC.

Schools may clean and disinfect more frequently if there is high COVID-19 transmission in the community, a low number of people wearing masks properly, infrequent hand hygiene or the space is occupied by people at increased risk for severe illness from COVID-19, according to the CDC.

Social distancing

The CDC now recommends, with universal masking, students may maintain at least 3 feet of distance in classroom settings in most cases.

In middle and high schools, community transmission should also be low to remain 3 feet apart instead of 6.

Greater distances may be used when there is a high level of community spread to reduce the risk of students needing to quarantine, DESE advises.

Schools should still require 6 feet of distance between adults at school and between adults and students since adults are more likely to spread the virus, DESE recommends. Students should also maintain 6 feet of distance if masks cannot be worn — such as while eating — and during activities when increased exhalation occurs — such as singing, shouting, band, sports or exercise.

Visitor access

If cases and the transmission rate are low, schools can consider allowing visitors, but they should screen the visitor for COVID-19 symptoms, require them to wear a mask indoors, and keep a record of areas of the school they visited and what time they entered and exited the building. Whether the visitor is vaccinated may also play a role in the district's decision to allow them inside, according to DESE.

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