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Some Missouri officials urge schools not to follow new state COVID-19 guidance

Some local officials — including in Kansas City and St. Louis County — have urged their schools not to follow the new relaxed statewide guidance for when to quarantine. 

Under the new guidance, students and staff who have been in contact with someone who tested positive for COVID-19 do not have to quarantine if all parties were properly wearing face coverings and they do not experience any coronavirus symptoms. 

“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 today,” Kansas City Mayor Quinton Lucas said. “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.” 

As of Thursday, when the new guidance was announced, nearly 26,000 new positive cases have been confirmed in Missouri over a seven day period. Per the state’s methodology, Missouri has seen a nearly 41 percent positivity rate over that span. 

Missouri does not have a statewide mask mandate and many schools have moved to virtual learning. 

(Missouri Department of Health and Senior Services)

The new guidance from the Department of Elementary and Secondary Education (DESE) and the Department of Health and Senior Services (DHSS) defined “close contact” as coming within 6 feet of an individual who has been diagnosed with COVID-19 for at least 15 minutes throughout a 24 hour period starting from two days before the onset of the illness. The school guidance encourages those who were properly wearing a mask to self-monitor for COVID-19 symptoms instead of quarantining. 

“Schools that are consistently implementing COVID-19 mitigation strategies remain among the safest places for our students,” Gov. Mike 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.” 

Aside from Kansas City, Webster Groves School District said it will follow guidance from the St. Louis County Department of Public Health. 

“We don’t intend to make changes to our protocol of asking students and staff to remain off campus following an exposure, whether they were wearing a mask or not,” the district said. 

St. Louis and Boone counties both said there were “no changes” to their guidance to schools at this time while noting the CDC has not changed its recommendations. 

“It is important to carefully consider what impacts this state recommendation may have on our county, especially considering that cases and hospitalizations are surging. 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,” the Boone County department said

Phil Murray, president of the Missouri National Education Association, said the new guidance “jeopardizes children, educators, and families.” 

“Permitting persons exposed to COVID-19 to remain in contact with students and educators is indefensible. It will put more strain on the nurses and doctors in our local hospitals working to save lives,” Murray said. “Now is the time to focus on implementing more aggressive mitigation strategies such as increased ventilation, reduced class size to enable social distancing, virtual education, higher quality PPE, and hiring additional staff to aid in sanitization. We call on local school boards and superintendents to stand with our students and educators and reject this guidance.” 

During Thursday’s press conference announcing the new guidance, DESE Commissioner Margie Vandeven said the “large number” of both students and staffers that have had to quarantine this year “has presented a significant strain on educators, school leaders and Missouri families.” She said it has resulted in “unintended consequences” and noted older students have disregarded social distancing and masks and gotten together with friends while they were supposed to be in quarantine. 

Iowa, Nebraska, and Wyoming have put in place similar quarantine guidelines and have not seen an increase in transmission rates in schools, Vandeven said.