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If a person at a K-12 school that has a mandate in place to wear masks is diagnosed with COVID-19 and someone else was exposed, but both people were correctly wearing masks at the time, the exposed person will not need to quarantine, according to a new policy announced Thursday by Gov. Mike Parson and his administration.
The policy elicited disapproving responses from teachers' unions — the president of the state's largest calling the guidance dangerous — though the state's K-12 education leader said other states with similar policies have not seen ill consequences.
Parson said the move to loosen quarantine policy is one to promote sustainability in the months ahead — in other words, trying to keep as many students doing in-person learning as possible.
Commissioner of Education Margie Vandeven said, "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. 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."
In recent weeks, the Jefferson City School District, Moniteau County R-1 (California) and Cole County R-5 (Eugene) districts are among those that have decided to entirely or have certain grade levels pivot for a time to remote learning because of staffing issues caused by the pandemic.
Other Mid-Missouri districts such as Osage County R-3 (Fatima), Jamestown C-1 and Maries County R-1 switched to or extended online learning because of COVID-19 cases among students or staff.
Other districts such as Blair Oaks R-2 are not having to do schoolwide or districtwide remote learning but still have large numbers of students in quarantine. In Blair Oaks' case, earlier this week there were 135 students in quarantine from close contact with someone with COVID-19 — but only 31 of those were close contacts to cases at school.
"All decisions that we make are firmly based on protecting the safety and well-being of our students and our staff," Vandeven said of the new policy regarding masks and quarantine.
The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention has released updated guidance on wearing masks; masks — specifically non-valved, multi-layer cloth masks — protect wearers and the people around them from the coronavirus that causes COVID-19.
Previous guidance was that masks were only particularly effective at offering protection for other people, not necessarily the wearer.
Masks reduce the amount of virus-laden airborne droplets released into an area when people cough, sneeze, sing, talk or breathe, and are especially helpful in preventing people who don't even know they're infected from spreading the virus.
According to the CDC's conclusions based on multiple cited studies, multi-layer cloth masks can block 50-70 percent of a wearer's emitted respiratory droplets, and may block almost 50 percent of incoming fine particles.
That can mean a 70 percent or higher reduction in risk of becoming infected, according to some studies.
The White House Coronavirus Task Force's recommendations in its weekly reports so far this month have included that, "In accordance with CDC guidelines, masks must be worn by students and teachers in K-12 schools."
Parson's move Thursday is essentially a carrot to encourage schools to have a mask mandate in place, if they don't already, but it would still not be a statewide requirement.
Vandeven told a reporter a number of schools have already chosen to require masks, "and we're using this policy to encourage them even further."
Parson later said most people in the state are already under a mandate, and he again resisted a statewide measure.
Under the new policy, exposed individuals are still encouraged to monitor themselves for symptoms and stay home at the first sign of being sick — and should continue to wear a mask at all times — according to a news release from Parson's office.
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Close contacts at K-12 schools that don't require students and staff to wear masks, or in instances where the close contact or the already infected person were not wearing masks correctly, should still quarantine for 14 days.
Vandeven said states such as Iowa, Nebraska and Wyoming "have implemented a similar quarantine protocol to this, and they have not reported an increase of transmission rates in their schools."
Dr. Rachel Orscheln — an associate professor of pediatrics at Washington University and St. Louis Children's Hospital who Parson said has been advising the administration for months — said Thursday the coronavirus "most often" just gives children a mild case of COVID-19, young children seem less likely to transmit the virus than adolescents or adults and there's little evidence of viral spread at schools, especially when masks are used.
The new quarantine policy was not well-received by the state's teachers' unions, however.
The leadership of AFT Missouri, including president Debbie Bornhop, said in a statement to the News Tribune, "With COVID cases at an all-time high throughout the state, it is the worst possible time to implement guidelines such as these. For Gov. Parson and the Department of Education to do so is reprehensible."
"Allowing our children and educators to remain in a school building after being exposed to COVID-19 is not just irresponsible, but jeopardizes all Missourians; our children, our educators, our families and the community at large.
"True assistance from our state leaders would ensure that every school have the necessary resources to implement every mitigation strategy available — including a statewide mask mandate," AFT Missouri's statement added.
Phil Murray, president of the Missouri NEA union — the largest in the state — also told the News Tribune, "We've always wanted" a statewide mask mandate for schools.
Murray said in a statement of his own on behalf of Missouri NEA, "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.
"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."
He said what he meant by "reject this guidance" is schools should stick with the quarantine guidance they had before.
"I think it is inevitable that some schools are going to have to be closed for a while," Murray said, though he added proper cleaning, supply of personal protective equipment and other mitigation measures can help.
Parson said lessening the number of school students who have to be quarantined may also help reduce staffing stresses on hospitals, letting students' parents who are health care providers avoid having to stay home to watch them.
Other than perhaps encouraging more people to wear masks, that new quarantine policy doesn't really affect the COVID-19 caseloads — the increasing number of new cases and hospitalizations — that are stretching hospitals' resources, but Parson said "the quick thing that we can do is try to make every available health care worker we have in the state — to be able to figure out how we can get boots on the ground, how can we get them back in the health care system," whether through using retired workers or nursing students.
He added that, in the long-term, an increase in available health care workers from expanded nursing programs in the state would also help.