Opinion

Kyle Troutman: A tool in the box

Saturday, November 28, 2020

Changes this week to COVID-19 quarantine guidelines in schools have given administrations some options for allowing students to stay in class in-person, but the changes have not come without some raised eyebrows.

Gov. Mike Parson, the Department of Health and Senior Services and the Department of Elementary and Secondary Education announced the changes on Nov. 12. Essentially, the new guideline allows a student deemed a close contact to continue going to classes in person, given the student wears a mask all the time unless eating or drinking, and even then, be socially distanced.

The student would still be subject to all Health Department quarantine rules outside of class time, meaning no extracurricular activities and staying at home when not in class.

Given the emphasis placed on masking and the seriousness of quarantines and contact tracing, the change came as a bit of a surprise.

The motive behind it is multi-fold. For one, it’s another tool in the schools’ box for finding ways to keep students engaged and in the buildings, instead of having to transition in and out of virtual classes any time a student is named a close contact, many of which have been multiple times. It will also help the state study spreading and the effectiveness of masks.

Currently, bonafide transmissions of COVID within school walls have been minimal. One reputable source has told me schools in southwest Missouri tracking the numbers are seeing less than 1 percent of children quarantined from a school-related case ultimately test positive, a figure that may have spurred the change in approach.

The new guidelines were also the hot topic at school board meetings this month, with every district at least discussing masking mandates and where the district can find success. A mandate is required for the modified quarantine rule to be applied.

For some, the decisions were easy. Monett had a masking mandate for grades 3-12 already, so extending the policy to the lower levels made sense. It passed by a 7-0 vote with a small amount of discussion, but no hesitation to make the change.

Purdy is in a similar boat, having had a mandate all year long. The new rules applied to Purdy without any changes needing to be made.

Other area schools, like Wheaton and Cassville, adopted entirely new mask mandates. The common goals mentioned when doing so are keeping children in school and safe.

Smaller schools, like Verona and Exeter, opted to stay without a mandate and keep doing what they are doing. Schools that size have tended to find success in other methods, like enhanced social distancing and building cleaning. They, by and large, have avoided mass quarantines and kept students at their desks.

Pierce City went its own route entirely. Its Board of Education took no action on the guidelines, saying they did not believe close contacts should be in the buildings, mask or not. The district does not have a mask mandate, but it does encourage students to mask.

The differences in approaches are a far cry from what we saw back in March during the original wellness break. At that time, About 15 or so southwest Missouri districts banded together and did the same things.

The differences now are coming with education. As knowledge surrounding the virus grows over time, it is allowing for changes like what the Governor has proposed, and on a local level, has given administrations some level of experience to feel in a better place to make decisions going forward.

This new rule should be viewed as a test run. Cases in the community are as high as they have ever been, and with Thanksgiving having just passed and Christmas around the corner, the likelihood of COVID slowing down before the end of this year is minimal.

If cases begin to rise drastically in schools, the new guidelines will likely disappear, as they should.

But for now, let’s take a breath and hope for the best. Any safe tool to keep students where they should be — attending in-person classes — is welcomed.

Kyle Troutman has served as the editor of The Monett Times since 2014. In 2017, he was named William E. James/Missouri Outstanding Young Journalist for daily newspapers. He may be reached at 417-235-3135 or editor@monett-times.com.