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Some districts have buckled down on testing, masks and vaccinations. Others say they are better off making such mitigation measures optional.
By Tessa Weinberg And Rudi Keller, Missouri Independent
Teddy Danieley was devastated.
Three weeks ago tears streamed down the five-year-old’s face when he learned he couldn’t attend the first-day of school in St. Louis because his dad had tested positive for COVID-19.
Instead, he and his two older sisters — 10-year-old Lucy and 9-year-old Ruby — spent what would have been their first day of school getting tested. They all tested positive, and had to quarantine for two weeks as a result.
Last week, the Danieley siblings finally got their first day of in-person school since March 2020. After a year of virtual pre-kindergarten, Teddy got to join his classmates — and on his birthday, too.
“So he was excited because he got to bring pre-packaged treats to his class on his first day,” his mother, Teresa Danieley, said.
It’s been stressful and scary. But Teresa Danieley said she feels lucky she and her husband had paid time off, health insurance to take their kids to the doctor and that the children’s symptoms were all mild.
“But I know that there’s a lot of kids that are getting hospitalized with COVID, because they’re not eligible for vaccines,” Danieley said. “And it makes me incredibly angry.”
The quarantine that Danieley and her family endured is one that thousands of families, students and staff are now embarking on themselves as a return to in-person learning has kicked off a wave of COVID-19 cases in Missouri schools.
During the first year of the pandemic, cases among children were a small fraction of the total.
Through the end of September 2020, fewer than 1 in 12 cases were among children under 18 and more than 1 in 5 infections were adults 60 or older. By mid-February, the rate among children was slightly higher, about 1 of every 9 cases, but the share in adults 60 or older had grown as well, to nearly 1 in 4 cases.
But vaccinations and the highly contagious Delta variant have combined to flip those ratios. So far this month, 4,616 lab-confirmed cases among children is more than 1 in every 4 cases.
On Friday, the share was almost up to 1 in 3.
The Department of Health and Senior Services does not report demographic information on cases identified by antigen, or rapid, testing.
More infections among children have led to more pediatric hospitalizations. The CDC reported a tenfold increase in hospitalizations among children from June to August as the Delta variant wave swept over the country.
And health departments around the state are noticing something else – the introduction of the coronavirus by one member of a household leads to cases involving most if not all of the other family members.
That was not as common early in the pandemic, especially for children.
“Fifteen cases reside at addresses with at least one other confirmed case,” the Adair County Health Department stated in a Tuesday Facebook post describing the latest batch of 44 new infections.
During the first week of school in St. Louis County, there were at least 373 COVID cases among students and 56 among staff which led to 1,318 quarantines. The St. Louis County Department of Public Health noted the actual number is most likely higher as not all schools reported data.
Districts have little choice but to prioritize in-person learning this school year after Missouri’s State Board of Education rescinded a rule that provided districts with more flexibility to offer long-term remote instruction.
Districts have chosen to achieve the goal of facilitating in-person learning differently, and the gamut of responses is emblematic of Missouri’s local control approach.
Some have buckled down on testing, masks and vaccinations. Others say they are better off making such mitigation measures optional — with some districts disregarding a federal order to require face masks on school buses.
At the Nell Holcomb R-IV School District in Cape Girardeau, students identified as a close contact of a positive case are required to wear a mask when distancing can’t be maintained. But if a child has proof of a positive COVID-19 test in the last 90 days, they’re exempt from the mask requirement.
For those who aren’t close contacts, the district has made masks optional not only in classrooms but also on school buses.
The policy goes against a CDC order that requires masks on school buses. It’s a rule DESE reiterates in its own state guidance, noting schools don’t have discretion regarding the federal order.
Superintendent Bleau Deckerd noted the CDC order is just that — an order, not a law. Deckerd said he felt it was pointless to wear masks on the bus if they wouldn’t be worn in the classroom, and he didn’t want bus drivers to focus on enforcing mask wearing rather than focus on the road.
The decision is based on the number of students who ride the bus, about 200, and the climate of the community that values making those decisions themselves, Deckerd said.
In an email he wrote that was posted on Facebook by a state senator, Deckerd explained his justification for why the district wouldn’t require face masks on buses, including receiving an assurance from the Department of Elementary and Secondary Education (DESE) that it wouldn’t result in a loss of federal funding.
“I think the seven people that’s on my school board have a better understanding of what’s going on in our community,” Deckerd said, “and can definitely make better decisions for our particular students and community than anybody in Washington, D.C.”
The Fredericktown R-1 School District, 55 miles away in Madison County, is enforcing the mask rule on buses but does not have a rule for masks in school buildings, Assistant Superintendent Melanie Allen said.
“Masks are required on the buses and of course that is a federal guideline,” Allen said. “We strongly encourage them, and have lots and lots of safety measures in place.”
Mallory McGowin, a spokeswoman for DESE, said it’s up to the CDC to enforce the federal order, not the state. The department doesn’t intend to make any adjustments to funding, transportation or otherwise, based on districts’ decisions on whether to require face masks on buses, McGowin said.
A spokesperson for the CDC did not immediately respond to a request for comment Friday.
Mask mandates and fist fights
At the South Nodaway R-IV School District in Barnard in northwest Missouri, the district shut down for two days this month in order to clean, sanitize and ventilate the buildings. At the time, 49 students and three staff members were out due to quarantine or illness, according to a letter sent to parents.
Overall, over 25 percent of the total student population and over 50 percent of seventh through 12th graders were absent.
Upon students return Tuesday, a mask policy was in place until at least Sept. 17.
It’s a move that many districts have returned to in recent weeks. But it’s not always welcome.
In Pleasant Hill, fights broke out between people who attended the board of education’s meeting where they unanimously voted to require masks, KMBC-TV reported.
Attorney General Eric Schmitt has waged a series of lawsuits against mask mandates, and is suing Columbia Public Schools alleging that the district and more than 50 others requiring masks in the classroom are violating state law.
No court action has been taken on Schmitt’s lawsuit, and Columbia schools have yet to file any response. But the future of the district’s mask rule will be determined Monday night during a meeting of the Columbia Board of Education.
One point made in Schmitt’s lawsuit is that the district is subject to a new law controlling the breadth and duration of local health orders. Schmitt argues that the school district is a political subdivision as defined in the law and at the time it was issued, it could not be in place for more than 30 days without a majority vote of the board.
Since the case was filed, Gov. Mike Parson has revoked his general pandemic emergency declaration. That triggers a provision in the law that says local health orders can only be in place for 21 days and renewal takes a two-thirds majority.
The lawsuit will be discussed in a closed session of the board prior to a vote on renewing the district’s COVID-19 policies, including masks. The district spokeswoman Michelle Baumstark declined to disclose to The Independent whether the resolution will require a two-thirds majority or if the district believes that a simple majority will be sufficient.
Board member Jeanne Snodgrass said she anticipates she will receive that information during the executive session.
“I am supportive of the mitigation strategies the administration has put in place,” she said.
The board is, however, preparing for a potentially turbulent session, Baumstark said.
“The climate is such that we have to be prepared for everything,” she said.
One way the climate has changed for education this year is that the state has closed off the option of mass virtual instruction. For districts with high case counts, masks and temporary closures are what they feel is necessary to ensure they can continue to offer in-person learning.
A rule that allowed districts and charter schools to provide extended distanced instruction in response to COVID-19 closures expired July 30, 2021.
“There are no plans at this time to re-implement that temporary rule,” McGowin, spokeswoman for DESE, said, noting that educators have learned over the last 18 months how to implement effective mitigation strategies to keep school doors open.
It’s part of what influenced South Nodaway R-IV’s decision to close school for two days amid the large number of quarantines.
The district’s superintendent, Dustin Skoglund, said in an email that DESE guidelines mean schools can no longer rely on virtual instruction, so “with a large percentage of our students in quarantine, our administrative team elected to cancel and make those days up at a time when more students could be present for in-person learning.”
Districts have few options.
Quarantined students can either get five hours of one-on-one instruction in person, virtually or over the phone per week or they can complete assignments through a DESE-approved distanced learning plan.
A third option, which counts as onsite attendance, includes a quarantined student video chatting into class while a teacher instructs other students, DESE’s attendance reporting guidance notes.
Deckerd said in his district, being fully virtual isn’t even a feasible option because only about half of students have access to Wi-Fi or high-speed internet. He said he’s heard concerns among superintendents about how funding will be affected, and hopes to see more guidance from the state.
Attendance, not enrollment, is the major factor determining state school aid.
Virtual education was never an option in Fredericktown, Allen said, but the district has found ways to use the internet to keep parents better informed of potential exposure. The district posts daily updates to an online report stating the classrooms and buses where potential exposure to COVID-19 has occurred.
The central information site makes communication more certain, she said.
“We had letter after letter after letter after letter is going out and they are all being lost on the buses, or in their backpacks,” Allen said.
On Friday, she said, the district had 95 students in isolation or quarantine out of an enrollment of about 2,000.
Sara Williams, Kansas City Public Schools COVID-19 response coordinator, said she feels confident that DESE would make adjustments if needed if high rates of students are unable to attend school.
“The state of Missouri has not given us the opportunity to really explore anything other than an in-person model,” Williams said. “So we are doing our best to identify and isolate and quarantine those cases that need to.”
To test or not:
Two yellow school buses are show in bright sunshine outside a two-story brick school building in Columbia, Missouri.
KCPS has attempted to curb the virus on multiple fronts. It was the first district in the KC area to require staff be vaccinated or submit to weekly testing, and hopes to have 80 percent of staff fully vaccinated by Oct. 31. Masks are required on campuses. And the district is offering two different testing programs to cover all of its schools.
But the virus has still found its way in.
Between Aug. 30 and Sept. 8, there were 55 COVID cases reported among students and staff and 460 quarantines, according to KCPS’ dashboard.
“I’m disappointed, but I’m not surprised that this is where we are at this time,” Williams said, stressing that transmission in schools is going to mirror transmission in the community.
With the pandemic appearing to be here for the foreseeable future, Williams said the district wants to normalize all the mitigation strategies as much as possible.
One of the testing programs the district is operating is with Children’s Mercy to offer both diagnostic and surveillance testing at eight schools in high transmission ZIP codes or with dense populations. It’s funded by the National Institutes of Health and aims to study the preferred methods to test in schools.
The district’s remaining schools are participating in a screening testing program offered by the state through Ginkgo Bioworks Inc., a Boston-based biotechnology company.
Missouri’s screening testing program is funded by $185 million in federal funds, and KCPS is just one of 16 districts across the state participating. Overall, 53 schools have opted-in to the program.
Districts participating in either the pooled testing program or offering antigen testing are eligible to receive funds to cover costs like paying staff, personal protective equipment and small air filtration devices. Amounts are calculated based on the school’s population and they can receive a minimum of $30,000 or up to $600,000.
Lisa Cox, a spokeswoman for the Department of Health and Senior Services, said the primary barrier to schools participating in the pooled testing program has been a lack of parental support, COVID-19 fatigue, the burden it might create for staff and a lack of government support or political will.
At the Nell Holcomb district, Deckerd said the district only has one school nurse — who is already overwhelmed. Even if funding and staff was provided to operate a testing program, Deckerd said he was unsure the district would consider it.
“Our philosophy is we don’t want to turn our school into a medical facility,” he said. “We just want to focus on educating students on a daily basis.”