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Missouri guidance change seeks to reduce school quarantines

Missouri Gov. Mike Parson on Thursday announced new guidance aimed at keeping more kids, teachers and staff in school, even those who have been exposed to the coronavirus, citing concerns that quarantines interrupt learning and create staff shortages.

But the change was quickly dismissed by leaders of Kansas City and St. Louis County, who said schools should continue to require quarantines for anyone who has direct contact with someone with the virus.

Currently, anyone in a K-12 setting who is directly exposed to the coronavirus must quarantine for 14 days. The new guidance does not require quarantining if both the infected person and the person exposed wore masks.

The change comes as the virus continues to surge, with Missouri reporting 4,603 confirmed new cases Thursday, 16 more deaths and a record 2,248 people in hospitals. The state has cited 225,371 confirmed cases and 3,339 deaths since the pandemic began. The current positivity rate of 22.4% is more than four times the benchmark recommended by the World Health Organization.

Missouri has no statewide mask mandate, and the state does not require masks in schools although some districts do.

Parson, a Republican, reiterated Thursday that he opposes a statewide mask requirement. But he said state officials believe the guidance change “will lead to more schools encouraging proper mask usage, helping to further protect students and educators from the spread of the virus.”

The new guidance still requires the person who tests positive to isolate at home. Meanwhile, those who have close contact with an infected person at a school without a mask mandate should continue to require 14 days of home quarantine.

Dr. Rachel Orscheln, an infectious disease expert at the Washington University School of Medicine and St. Louis Children’s Hospital, spoke alongside Parson at a news conference in Jefferson City.

“In schools where students and staff are always wearing masks and practicing physical distancing, this virus does not spread as easily as it does in other places where these strategies are not always used,” Orscheln said.

Missouri Department of Elementary and Secondary Education Commissioner Margie Vandeven said current quarantining practices are creating staffing shortages and keeping too many kids at home, where many struggle to keep up without the structure of in-person learning.

Vandeven said teachers have worked tirelessly to make the current system work. “But quite frankly, it’s exhausting and it is not sustainable,” she said.

Vandeven said Iowa, Nebraska and Wyoming have implemented similar protocols without increases in confirmed cases at their schools.

Kansas City Mayor Quinton Lucas cited the “increasing uncontrolled spread of COVID-19 in our community” in announcing that the city won’t recommend that schools follow the new guidance.

St. Louis County’s health department said in a statement that it also would not change its guidance.

“Every part of the state is unique, but schools in St. Louis County have seen significant transmissions of COVID-19 among teachers and students,” the department said. “Cases and hospitalizations in our region are surging. Now is not the time to weaken our quarantine policies here in St. Louis County. Doing so would reduce the effectiveness of one of the most powerful tools we have to prevent spread.”

A St. Louis Public Schools spokeswoman said the district would announce its response later.

Parson acknowledged that COVID-19 cases and hospitalizations have risen in recent weeks “more than we ever thought they would. That is the hard fact of where this virus is going.”

Parson allowed the state to reopen in mid-June. He often urges personal responsibility to control the spread of the virus but has declined to issue statewide restrictions. He cited his overwhelming election victory on Nov. 3 as evidence that residents agreed with his approach.

“But I’m here to tell you this to all my Missourians: It is time we’ve got to step up,” Parson said. “We’ve got to do our part to protect one another. No government’s going to do that for you. You have to take that upon yourself.”

Parson also announced that he will seek a special legislative session to consider liability protection against coronavirus-related lawsuits for health care providers, manufacturers, businesses, schools, churches, nonprofit organizations and others. The session will likely occur sometime around Thanksgiving, he said.

The virus was causing havoc at universities, too. The University of Missouri-Columbia announced Thursday that it will move classes online after Thanksgiving, with plans to return to in-person classes in the spring semester. Chancellor Mun Y. Choi cited concerns about the rise in cases in Columbia and Boone County.

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