Schools assessing new COVID guidelines, evaluate mask policies

Lake Sun

Lake area schools are assessing new state COVID-19 guidelines for quarantine students and teachers, and at least one district has already taken steps to address it.

The Morgan County School District in Versailles is aligning their COVID-19 policies with new guidance issued by the governor and the Missouri Department of Elementary and Secondary Education released last week that eliminated the 14-day quarantine for close contacts if appropriate mask guidelines have been followed when not social distancing.

The guidelines do not change quarantines for positive cases.

DESE released guidance addressing how schools with a mask policy can determine close contacts to a positive COVID case to reduce quarantines and help keep students and staff in school. Gov. Mike Parson supported the guidelines and recommended their implementation. The guidelines eliminate the 14-day COVID quarantine if appropriate mask policies have been followed.

While Morgan County has moved forward with implementing the new guidelines, Macks Creek is in the process of gathering feedback through a parental survey. The district currently does not have a mask mandate for students and staff.

Morgan County R-II Superintendent Steve Barnes summarized the new guidelines saying schools with a mask mandate can use this new guidance to eliminate the need for close contact quarantine in some instances where masks are worn appropriately and meet the approved mask criteria (they must have two layers, face shields do not count). The action taken by the school board mandates masks for PreK -12th grade and will look very similar to what the district is doing now.

The district saw a marked increase in COVID cases in mid-October and shut down on Oct. 22 transitioning to online learning. Classes resumed on Nov. 5.

“I believe it is important that we all understand that the role of the board of education in this instance was to simply decide to put a mask mandate in place or not. After a lengthy discussion and input from the public they unanimously approved the mask mandate and it begins today,” Barnes said.

From there, the responsibility to quarantine using the new guidance from the state and DESE is still at the discretion of the local health department with the cooperation and input from the school district. “Our administrators and nurses, alongside the health department, do their best to look at all the facts in each case and safely determine who will and will not be quarantined,”  Barnes said. “That process will be no different. The new recommendations only provide additional options to consider when making those determination. I have advised our staff, when in doubt, to err on the side of caution and safety.”

The district is currently operating under their Category 2 COVID procedures which includes a mandatory mask rule on buses, and when inside and unable to socially distance. The district does not allow field trips or in-person parent meetings. Meals are served in the classrooms and spectators are limited at athletic events.

Macks Creek Superintendent Josh Phillips said the district has been implementing protocols to allow social distancing as much as possible, and hiring extra staff to help with cleaning. Many parents are providing transportation limiting contact on buses and most meals are served in classrooms. Having smaller class sizes has helped the district to practice social distancing as much as possible. Although students and staff do have their temperature monitored, currently they are not required to wear masks.

To date, the district has had nine students test positive and two staff members. Close contact has quarantined 78 students and nine staff members. Phillips said none of the close contacts who were quarantined tested positive.

“One of the reasons for not requiring masks when we reopened school was because the guidelines previously stated it didn’t matter if both parties were wearing a mask or not, every close contact must be quarantined. Now, with the governor’s new direction, if all parties are masked when they aren’t socially distant, only the party that tests positive for COVID-19 must be isolated,” Phillips said.

Since the governor has eliminated the 14-day period for students in schools with mask mandates, the district is reevaluating their protocols.

Phillips said the district has sent a letter and survey to parents and guardians asking if they would support a requirement for mask mandates in light of the new guidelines.

Q & A:

1) What is the modified guidance involving mask use and quarantine in K-12 Schools?

On November 12, 2020, the guidance related to identifying close contacts in the school setting was modified. If the person diagnosed with COVID-19 and the close contact were both wearing masks appropriately during the time of exposure in the school setting, the close contact would not need to quarantine.

2) Does this recommendation apply to all K-12 Schools?

Yes, if the school has implemented a mask mandate, AND appropriate masks were being worn correctly by both individuals during the time of exposure in the school setting, the individual who came in contact with the person with COVID-19 does not have to quarantine at home.

3) Is a school mask mandate required?

No, school mask mandates are not required; the decision to require masks is made at the local level by school administrators and school board officials. However, schools must have a mask mandate for the updated guidance to apply to individuals identified as close contacts to a case at school.

4) What if a school does not have a mask mandate?

If the school has not implemented a mask mandate then close contacts in the school setting should continue to follow the previously established quarantine protocol, with close contacts quarantining at home for 14 days, regardless of mask use. The amended guidance is specific to the use of appropriate masks. Face shields or desk shields are not substitutes for the use of appropriate masks.

5) Does this apply to student and teachers?

Yes. The updated guidance includes students, teachers, and staff at K-12 schools.

6) What if the individual with COVID-19 is wearing a mask, but the close contacts are not?

The updated guidance only applies if the person diagnosed with COVID-19 AND the close contact were both wearing masks appropriately during the time of exposure in the school setting. Please refer to the visual aid “Wear a Mask. Stay in School.”

7) If students are seated 6 feet apart in the classroom, do they still need to be masked?

Persons seated greater than 6 feet apart would not be considered a close contact. However, there are many instances where teachers and students interact in the classroom and therefore, can result in the teacher and/or other students in the classroom meeting the criteria as a close contact and requiring quarantine. A school’s mask mandate that requires appropriate mask use at all times would ensure they are in compliance with the updated guidance.

8) Can the individual with COVID-19 return to class early if wearing a mask?

No. The individual with COVID-19 still must isolate and not return to school until the criteria is met for release from isolation.

Lake Sun Leader