Gov. Mike Parson announced Thursday that individuals who properly wear masks in the school setting may not have to quarantine if they are in close contact with someone who tests positive for COVID-19.
This is a major change aimed at keeping exposed, but otherwise healthy, students and teachers in the classrooms.
“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,” he said.
He said the change was made with input from the state’s Department of Elementary and Secondary Education and the Department of Health and Senior Services. It echoes what has been done in Iowa, Nebraska and Wyoming.
Margie Vandeven, the K-12 education commissioner, said the change will hopefully spur more districts to require masking.
“The procedures our schools have been following regarding quarantine are not sustainable as we work to provide in-person learning opportunities for students and our families who need it the most,” she said. “The large number of students and school staff members required to quarantine has presented a significant strain on educators, school leaders and Missouri families alike.”
Vandeven said the quarantines, up to 14 days in some cases, have many “unintended consequences” for families, schools and the economy.
“We are seeing our families struggle with significant amounts of stress as they try to keep up with a distance-learning model of instruction,” she said. “In particular, quarantining students may have difficulty interacting with their teachers to get the support they need as many of those educators are also trying to teach their students still in person in classrooms at the same time.”
Vandeven said teachers juggling in-person and virtual students are exhausted.
“Our students miss out on important social and emotional growth and development with their friends and their teachers at school and we’ve had countless families reach out to us truly concerned about their student’s mental health,” she said. “And we’ve had our education leaders reach out to us truly concerned about the well-being of our teachers during this ongoing uncertainty.”
Vandeven noted school quarantines among older students may be counterproductive.
“When our older students have to stay home from school to quarantine, they are often getting together with their friends in an unstructured environment and many are not distancing or wearing masks,” she said. “So having those students at school where distancing and masking are monitored may be among the safest places for them and may help to further reduce overall community spread.”
She said high quarantine rates among teachers and staff have prompted districts to stop in-person learning for periods of time. It has also exacerbated the state’s protracted substitute teacher shortage.
“Our agency has worked with the governor’s office to try to get more substitute teachers into our schools to help with this problem but we simply cannot meet the demand that the virus has created,” she said.
Under the new guidance, an individual diagnosed with COVID-19 will still have to isolate at home, but individuals exposed to the positive cases will not have to quarantine as long as all parties were properly masked.
Students, teachers and staff exposed to the positive case are expected to self-monitor for symptoms and stay at home at the first sign of illness.
Vandeven encouraged schools and health officials to monitor school data and notify the DESE and DHSS “at the first sign there may be a rise in cases due to transmission in schools.”
However, individuals exposed to a positive case in schools that do not require masking will be required to quarantine for 14 days.
“I have not yet met anyone who wants to see our schools closed,” Vandeven said. “If we want to keep them open, it is up to all of us. Wearing a mask, social distancing and proper hand hygiene in schools as well as our personal lives continues to be important in combating the spread of the virus.”
Stephen Hall, chief communications officer for Springfield Public Schools said the district will continue with its current protocols until it has reviewed the change.
“Once this new quarantine guidance is officially released and all appropriate details are known, SPS will work closely with the Springfield-Greene County Health Department to review implications for our district,” Hall said. “That review will determine if changes are appropriate, and if so, the best time to implement any shift in our current practice.”
Claudette Riley is the education reporter for the News-Leader. Email news tips to email@example.com.