Missouri relaxes mandatory quarantine rules for masked students, teachers
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."
Shawn Randles, superintendent in Logan-Rogersville, said strict quarantine rules were taking a toll.
"Kids don't want to miss school. They don't want to miss their activities and parents don't want to have to take off work when their kids are quarantined," he said.
Randles said he was hopeful the rapid-result antigen test kits provided by the state may help shorten quarantines. He said there are students on their second or third quarantine at this point.
"We need kids to stay in school," he said.
Others greeted the new guidelines with concern.
Phil Murray, president of the Missouri National Education Association, called the move a "dangerous choice."
“As educators, student safety is our top priority. It should also be the top priority of our state’s leaders. The dangerous choice to allow people exposed to COVID-19 to remain in a school building jeopardizes children, educators, and families," Murray said in a statement. "The likely irreparable harm to the health of students, our colleagues, and families compels us to speak out."
Murray noted a spike in COVID-19 cases in Missouri, stressing hospitals and the health care community.
"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," he said.
He called on education officials and school boards to reject the change and focus on more aggressive mitigation strategies such as increased ventilation, virtual options and reduced class sizes.
Bruce Moe, executive director of the Missouri State Teachers Association, said the move is not aligned with guidance given by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
“Redefining close contacts to mitigate the need to quarantine isn’t a safety measure, it’s semantics,” Moe said. “This new definition contradicts recent guidance from the CDC which says plainly that, ‘The determination of close contact should generally be made irrespective of whether the contact was wearing respiratory PPE.’"
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 also 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.
Dennis Cooper, executive director of the Greater Ozarks Cooperating School Districts, or GOCSD, has been collecting COVID-19 school statistics from 70 districts across the southern part of Missouri. Larger districts, including Springfield, are not included.
"The quarantine has probably been more of a distraction to our educational progress than any other part of the COVID," he said.
Cooper said as of early November, the districts reported 1,570 staff and students tested positive for COVID-19 since the start of the school year, 16,607 have been quarantined one or more times for exposure, and 125 positive cases have been "traced to exposure at school."
"That is 16,000 students or staff who have been quarantined one or more times for 14 days," he said. "That is a significant impact on teaching and learning."
Brett Soden, superintendent in Strafford, called the quarantine rules the "hardest part" of managing through the pandemic.
"We're sending healthy kids home for 14 days and they are not coming back showing any symptoms, which is a good thing, but we feel like a lot of healthy kids are not able to be in class," he 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."
Springfield Public Schools reported positive cases involving 182 students and 84 staff in the first quarter, which ended Oct. 22. During the same period, there were 1,824 student and 447 staff quarantines.
Stephen Hall, chief communications officer, 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.