Gov. Mike Parson announced revised COVID-19 guidelines for schools Thursday that remove some of the quarantine requirements that have been in place.
But local school and county officials said it’s too soon to say whether they will follow the new advice.
Under the modified guidelines, if a student is wearing a mask properly, they would no longer be required to be identified as close contacts in K-12 schools that require a mask mandate, even when a classmate they were in contact with tests positive. The goal is to limit the number of quarantined students.
The decision comes at a time when the number of COVID-19 cases is spiking in the state, along with the number of people hospitalized with the virus. Many school districts, including Columbia, are now teaching virtually.
At the press briefing, Parson and Missouri health officials said they based the new guidelines on increased data about the spread of COVID-19 among children that indicate it is transmitted less often by young children than it is by adolescents, adults and elders.
The new regulations raise concerns for Columbia Public Schools and the Columbia/Boone County Public Health and Human Services. Both organizations said Tuesday they will consider CDC guidelines and other sources of information before making any changes suggested by the state.
School districts “are now in the position where we must determine which entities, local health, CDC or state government, that we should be following with respect to community health and contact tracing,” said CPS spokesperson Michelle Baumstark . “It is a difficult position to be in.”
Baumstark said CPS will have to reassess its plan to return to in-person learning with the new guidelines. “Individuals still remove their masks to eat breakfast, to eat their snacks, to eat lunch,” Baumstark said. “So from that perspective you still will have at any point in time, during the day, individuals without masks on.”
The Columbia/Boone County health department released a statement saying it is not adopting the new state recommendation at this time.
“We are hopeful that this new guidance encourages vigilant mask use throughout the county, including in the school setting. However, the CDC has not changed their quarantine guidance, and it is important to carefully consider what impacts this state recommendation may have on our county, especially considering that cases and hospitalizations are surging,” according to the statement.
“Weakening our quarantine guidelines in schools could reduce the effectiveness of one of our best mitigation strategies to reduce the spread of COVID-19 in our community.”
Under the revised state guidelines, if a person has contracted COVID-19 or if a person exposed was not wearing a mask in a school environment, it would still be considered close contact and would require that person to quarantine for 14 days, Parson said.
“Because transmission within our schools appears to be low and masks continue to be effective in slowing the spread of the virus, Missouri is modifying its guidance regarding when students and educators should quarantine after being exposed to COVID-19 while in a school setting,” Parson said.
He and health officials said an emphasis on a mask mandate in schools could solve the issue of the strain on K-12 educators, school leaders, and Missouri students and their families due to the large number of students and school faculty quarantining in recent weeks.
Parson also said, “In addition to the students and educators, we believe this change will also provide relief for our health care professionals across the state.
“As we continue to evaluate our COVID-19 response efforts, we’re hearing more and more that some hospitals are experiencing staffing challenges through the parents of school aged children, having to stay home with our quarantine students.
“We hope that these new guidelines will give some important relief for these health care workers, as well as all workers that are having to stay at home with their kids in quarantine.”
Parson was joined by Rachel Orscheln, associate professor of pediatrics in the Division of Infectious Diseases at Washington University and St. Louis Children’s Hospital, who said it is inevitable that some students will test positive in a K-12 setting, but the recent data indicates that if students are properly wearing masks, the new regulation is reasonable.
“We also know that some of these children will likely, at some point in their illness, be at school,” Orscheln said. “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.”
County health officials said there is data that has them concerned about the new policy.
“Local health departments across the state have data showing transmission between child to child, child to adult and adult to child, even in the school setting where masks are mandated,” according to the city-county health department statement. “We cannot ignore the risk of a student or staff member spreading the virus to family members or other members of our community that could result in hospitalization or death. For these reasons, we have no final decision on adopting the state’s recommendations.”
Baumstark also said the district has been transparent about the fact that there will not be enough physical space to properly social distance.
“We do not have physical space for adequate social distancing based on the number of families that have selected in-person learning,” Baumstark said. As a result, “we would not be able to, in the format that we were moving forward with, to provide social distancing to the degree that is recommended.”
Baumstark said CPS plans to have conversations with the health department, look at CDC guidelines and compare those with what has been presented by the governor’s office, and assess operations within the district.
“We all want to return to in-person learning, everyone wants to return to in-person learning,” she said. “Everyone wants to return to what life was like pre-pandemic, and in order to do that, everybody has to do their part to make that possible.”