Local officials disagree with the governor
ov. Mike Parson, the Department of Health and Senior Services (DHSS), and the Department of Elementary and Secondary Education (DESE) on Thursday announced relaxed suggested requirements to Missouri’s K-12 school reopening and operating guidance.
The state’s suggested relaxed procedures to quarantining of students and school staff have already been rebuffed by the Park Hill School District and by the City of Kansas City.
Park Hill has said it has no plans at this time to change its procedures in regard to quarantining people who are directly exposed to COVID-19.
Superintendent Dr. Jeanette Cowherd said state and local health officials had come out against the governor’s suggestion of relaxing the requirements, and she shared that many Park Hill families and staff members had also let the school district know immediately that they were against the idea.
“The number of COVID-19 cases are up in Park Hill, and they are up in our community as well, so we need to remain vigilant,” Cowherd said.
She asked families to remember to keep their children home when they are ill or when they are exposed to anyone who might have COVID-19.
Kansas City Mayor Quinton Lucas had a similar reaction to Gov. Parson’s announcement.
“Based upon the advice of our health director and given the increasing uncontrolled spread of COVID-19 in our community, we respectfully cannot recommend schools in Kansas City follow the updated non-quarantine guidance shared from Jefferson City,” Lucas said on Tuesday, a short time after Parson had made his announcement.
“Masks continue to be one of the best ways to slow the spread of this virus, and I hope the governor’s acknowledgment of their benefit will encourage more to wear them. Still, masks are not a substitute for proper quarantine measures in schools or elsewhere-particularly as we’ve seen a concerning spike in cases over the past several months,’ Lucas continued.
“As we have since the onset of this virus, Kansas City appreciates the discretion Gov. Parson has given us to set COVID-19 protections fit for our community and that exceed the state’s guidance. We will continue to take seriously the recommendations set forth by our nation’s leading scientific experts at the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. As of today, CDC guidance regarding quarantine periods in schools has not changed, even when masks are present at the time of COVID-19 exposure. Kansas City will continue to follow that guidance,” the mayor said.
The large number of students and school staff members quarantined in recent weeks has presented a significant strain for educators, school leaders, and Missouri families alike.
“We know that COVID-19 is not going away soon, so it is important that we continue to evaluate the guidance we’re issuing at the state level to make sure our procedures are sustainable for the next several months,” Gov. Parson said Thursday. “We have been working hard with DESE and DHSS to find a solution that allows us to continue providing the high-quality education our students deserve while still keeping them, our teachers, and all school staff members safe.”
Under the updated guidance, proper mask wearing may now prevent individuals from being identified as close contacts in K-12 schools that have implemented a mask mandate. This means that if both individuals at school – the person diagnosed with COVID-19 and the person exposed to the positive case – have masks on and are wearing them correctly, the individual exposed does not need to quarantine.
Exposed individuals should self-monitor for symptoms and stay home at the first sign of illness. They should also continue to wear a mask at all times to further reduce the likelihood of transmitting the virus. The person who tests positive for COVID-19 is still required to isolate at home.
Close contacts in K-12 schools should continue to quarantine at home for 14 days if (1) their school does not require students and staff to wear masks, or (2) the mask was not being worn appropriately by either the person diagnosed with COVID-19 or the person who was exposed.
“Schools that are consistently implementing COVID-19 mitigation strategies remain among the safest places for our students,” Parson said. “We believe this change will lead to more schools encouraging proper mask usage, helping to further protect students and educators from the spread of the virus.”
At Thursday’s briefing in the State Capitol, Parson was joined by Dr. Rachel Orscheln, associate professor of pediatrics in the Division of Infectious Diseases at Washington University and St. Louis Children’s Hospital. Dr. Orscheln has worked closely with DHSS and DESE throughout the pandemic, providing expertise to ongoing conversations related to K-12 school reopening and operating guidance.
“Given the high rates of COVID-19 in our communities, it is inevitable that some children and adolescents will test positive,” Dr. Orscheln said. “We also know that some of these children will likely, at some point in their illness, be at school. However, we have learned that in schools where students and staff are always wearing masks and practicing physical distancing, this virus does not spread as easily as it does in other places where these strategies are not always used.”
Parson was also joined at the briefing by Commissioner of Elementary and Secondary Education Margie Vandeven.
“As COVID cases increase across the state, we understand that the virus is not going away quickly. Rigorous mitigation strategies and reasonable quarantine protocols will help provide our students onsite learning opportunities more consistently,” Commissioner of Education Margie Vandeven said. “Our teachers and school leaders have worked tirelessly to meet the needs of our students throughout the first quarter, but the current structure is not sustainable long-term. Students and their families struggle to keep up with coursework in a distanced model of instruction when students are temporarily quarantined, and many districts have been forced to suspend in-person learning opportunities after large numbers of school staff members were directed to quarantine.”
In addition to mask wearing, adequate social distancing and proper hand hygiene continue to be important in combatting the spread of COVID-19.
“Schools and local health officials are encouraged to monitor health data in their schools and alert DESE and DHSS at the first sign there may be a rise in cases due to transmission in schools,” Commissioner Vandeven continued. “We want to be sure we’re working with state health leaders to monitor this change in guidance and make any adjustments necessary to keep students and school personnel safe as we move forward.”