New mask rules aim to keep kids in school

Wednesday, November 25, 2020

When positive case, close contact both masked, contact may stay in class

A change in contact tracing guidelines within schools is prompting local districts to reevaluate their masking requirements, as there are new possibilities to keep students and staff from being forced to quarantine for 14 days at home in the event of a school-related positive COVID-19 case.

Gov. Mike Parson, the Department of Health and Senior Services (DHSS) and the Department of Elementary and Secondary Education (DESE) recently announced modifications to COVID guidance, now saying proper mask wearing may 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 is not required to quarantine.

The person exposed will still be contact traced and listed as a quarantine per the health department, and the person will be required to wear a mask during all activities at school. Students will not be allowed to participate in extracurricular activities outside of normal class hours, and normal 14-day quarantine rules will apply when not in class.

Roger Brock, administrator of the Barry County Health Department, said the Department’s board has voted to allow the new guidelines to take effect immediately for schools enforcing a mask mandate.

“The objective is to be able to monitor them inside the classroom and still give the opportunity for on-site learning,” he said. “The consensus is that the transmission rate is lower in the school setting, but only time will tell. We have had plenty of student-age positive cases. Whether those transmissions happened at school or somewhere else is tough to determine.

“We have been making adjustments with the knowledge we gain as we go along. If students are wearing masks and can stay in school, and we don’t see a spike in cases, that would be fantastic.”

Brock said social distancing also still plays a big role, especially when it comes to contact tracing.

Tana Bradshaw, health educator with the Lawrence County Health Department, said Lawrence County is following Barry County’s lead on allowing districts to use the new guidelines, but not many seem to be making any change.

“Most schools in Lawrence County are not doing it,” she said. “Miller, Mt. Vernon and Monett have had masking requirements for certain age groups all year, but it sounds like others will stay as they are.”

Kent Medlin, interim superintendent of the Monett school district, said it has had a masking mandate for students in grades 3-12 since the start of school in August, and the Board of Education has now extended the mandate to grades K-12.

“The board approved masking in K-12 because that allows us top operate by the modified quarantine regulations set forth by the Governor,” Medlin said. “All groups, [school districts and health departments] are in unison now on the interpretation of those guidelines and our strategies to implement them.”

Medlin said the board approved the expanded mandate at last week’s board meeting by a 7-0 vote.

“There was some brief discussion, but I did not sense any hesitation on the board’s part to make the change,” Medlin said. “We are trying to figure out how to be safe and keep our kids in the classroom, and we believe this change will enable us to make both of those things happen.

“Our hope is that as we go into the holidays and into winter that we are able to find ways to successfully navigate through this time.”

Kelli Alumbaugh, Pierce City superintendent, said its Board of Education went a different direction.

“The board met last week and I presented the new guidelines for their consideration,” she said. “The board chose to take no action because they didn’t feel like students who are deemed close contacts should be in the building.”

Alumbaugh said the district does not have a masking mandate, but it does encourage students to mask and takes a multitude of other precautions.

“Our quarantine numbers have gone up and down, and we had a stretch of about a month where we had none,” she said. “We’ve had a few cases recently, but overall, I’m pleased with our numbers. Our custodians come in and clean on weekends, our teachers clean after class and even our students wipe down their seats after using them. We will also do a deep cleaning of the buildings over Thanksgiving break.”

Alumbaugh said another factor in Pierce City’s success is its smaller size compared to other districts in the area.

At the Verona school district, the Board of Education addressed the new guidelines at its board meeting last week, as well. Superintendent Tony Simmons said he felt the inconvenience and burden of a mask mandate was hard to justify for the few number of students who could stay in school under the modified quarantine option.

Board member Beth Hilton said she wears a mask all day in a dental office and doesn’t feel masks are all that effective. Board member Kevin Hilton, who works outdoors at Hydro Aluminum in Monett and doesn’t wear a mask, agreed. The board voted unanimously against adopting the policy with its mask mandate. Simmons said some students, pulled from school for quarantining, are staying at home unsupervised or simply roaming the community, and would be better served if they were in school.

The district has experienced limited impact from the coronavirus to date, attendance reports showed. Simmons noted the district used CARES (Coronavirus Aid Relief and Economic Security) Act to buy $3,400 in masks for students and staff to start the school year, and since that time had received 1,000 masks through donations.

Mindi Gates, superintendent of the Purdy school district, said the new guidelines would immediately apply to Purdy.

“We were happy to hear about this because our Return to Learn plan included masking from the beginning,” she said. “We require them on school busses, when entering or exiting the building, when moving through the building and in the classroom when unable to physically distance. We will not have to make any adjustments to our requirements because we’ve been doing this all school year.”

Gates said Purdy’s quarantine numbers have not been high, but the new guidelines will do even more to keep students in class.

“Our thought was it’s always easier to loosen restrictions if we get good news than to have to change to something more strict,” she said. “All our kids, K-12, have been doing a good job with masking.”

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