While his state has averaged more than 3,700 new COVID-19 cases per day over the last week, Missouri Gov. Mike Parson released looser quarantine guidelines Nov. 12 for K-12 students and teachers in the state, allowing close contacts to forego previously mandatory quarantines in some situations.
The new guidelines, which Parson announced in a press conference and a series of tweets one day after visiting Northwest’s campus for a Veterans Day celebration, eliminate quarantine requirements for close contacts as long as both parties were engaged in “proper mask wearing” at the time of exposure, according to the governor’s announcement. The update in procedure only applies to schools where masks are required.
Parson and the Missouri Department of Health and Senior Services are requiring close contacts to self-monitor for symptoms, while close contacts at schools will still be forced to quarantine for 14 days — an incentive, the governor noted in a tweet, that “will lead to more schools encouraging proper mask usage.”
“Schools that are consistently implementing COVID-19 mitigation strategies remain among the safest places for our students,” Parson said in a press release. “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.”
Standing alongside Parson at his Thursday morning announcement was Rachel Orschen, a doctor and an associate professor of pediatrics in the Division of Infectious Diseases at Washington University and St. Louis Children’s Hospital, who provided the weight of a medical expert standing behind the governor’s update that directly contradicts Centers for Disease Control and Prevention guidelines on contact tracing. The CDC recommends the determination of close contacts “should generally be made irrespective of whether the contact was wearing respiratory PPE.”
In Parson’s press release, Orschen acknowledged that “it is inevitable that some children and adolescents will test positive,” but said that in-school transmission is minimal where districts have required masks. Still, Parson has declined to require masks statewide, as the COVID-19 positivity rate in Missouri sits at 22.4% over the last seven days and as the state’s seven-day rolling average of new cases has surged to unseen heights in November.
The updated guidelines came after school administrators from across the state, including Maryville RII Superintendent Becky Albrecht, called on the governor to alter quarantine requirements due to the disruption 14-day absences caused for students. Albrecht, along with every other superintendent in Nodaway County, signed a letter to the governor in late October requesting the change Parson announced Thursday.
“It’s really exciting news,” Albrecht said in a phone call to the Missourian Nov. 12. “It’s going to help us get kids back in school. … I’d say it’s not just me, but several superintendents have been advocating for this kind of behind the scenes and working for officials for a long time, so we are very happy about the news.”
For the time being, the newly-released quarantine rules would apply to Maryville's high school and middle school, where masks are required. Maryville RII does not require masks at the elementary school level, though Albrecht said that policy could change in light of the updated guidelines.
Additionally, Albrecht said the district had yet to determine if the governor’s announcement would apply retroactively to students or educators who were already quarantined when the updated guidelines were handed down. The superintendent said the district would ask students in quarantine to remain there Nov. 13 as administrators figure out how to move forward, coordinating reentry on a case-by-case basis.
“It’s fresh news,” Albrecht said. “So there are a lot of things like that that we have to consider and questions that we have to answer.”
The new guidelines come as Nodaway County faces a record surge in COVID-19 cases, with 293 active cases in the county as of Nov. 10 — the latest available data at the time of publication. The seven-day rolling average for new COVID-19 cases in the county reached an all-time high Nov. 9. Albrecht maintained that she was comfortable with following the guidelines issued by the state, as the district has since the start of the pandemic. She noted that most students required to quarantine due to in-school contact tracing have not wound up testing positive.
Albrecht said the district would take the rampant community spread of the virus into consideration as Maryville moves forward in applying the guidelines the superintendent called for. And while Albrecht maintains the new policies are in the best interest of students, one educator in the region who spoke with the Missourian on the condition of anonymity said administrators are “protecting themselves while turning a blind eye to sick kids.”
“They don’t care...they won’t recognize the pandemic,” the teacher said. “Administrators are often unmasked in school. … If they were concerned about student learning, they would have invested in teacher training for remote situations. They did not.”
In Maryville, Albrecht said she would meet with administrators and the district’s Board of Education to iron out details and clear up unresolved questions that might come with the new guidelines. More decisions will be made at the district’s Nov. 18 Board of Education meeting — not in time for publication .
Albrecht refuted the notion that administrators in her district are often unmasked in schools, emphasizing the mitigation efforts the district already has in place, including frequent sanitization and encouraged temperature check before school. And she acknowledged the concern teachers and students might have about the virus running rampant throughout Nodaway County, even as the district implements a policy that clashes with federal guidance.
“Just because we aren’t quarantining as much due to this new mask guidance, it doesn’t mean that the threat’s not there,” Albrecht said. “So we still have to be vigilant. … We’re still trying to be safe and take those other precautions very, very seriously.”