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As Missouri Coronavirus Cases Increase, Governor Loosens Restrictions For Schools

Parson has served as governor since 2018.
Jaclyn Driscoll
St. Louis Public Radio
“We gotta do our part to protect one another," Missouri Gov. Mike Parson said Thursday. "No government’s gonna do that for you."

Updated at 2:20 p.m. Nov. 12 with the call for a special legislative session to include COVID-19 liability protection

Missouri Gov. Mike Parson announced Thursday that students and teachers exposed to the coronavirus do not need to quarantine as long as masks were worn.

“Because transmission within our schools appears to be low and masks continue to be effective in slowing the spread of the virus, Missouri is modifying its guidance,” Parson said at his COVID-19 press briefing.

According to the Department of Elementary and Secondary Education, there are no current statewide health mandates related to K-12 schools and the coronavirus, but local rules may be put in place by school leaders or community health officials.

Prior to this update, students or teachers who came into contact with someone exposed to the virus, regardless of mask usage, needed to quarantine for 14 days, which is still the quarantine recommendation by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. But DESE Commissioner Margie Vandeven said that is “not sustainable” for Missouri schools.

“These large numbers of students and staff members who have to stay home, it’s creating significant unintended consequences,” Vandeven said.

Parson, who also broadened his call for the special legislative session to include COVID-19 liability protections, said he would not impose mask mandates for schools.

“This new guidance applies if a district or charter school has a mask mandate in place and all individuals are wearing their masks correctly during the time of exposure. As long as they do not begin to show symptoms, those close contacts may continue to attend school in person,” Parson said.

The updated guidance suggests that proper mask wearing can prevent individuals from “being identified as close contacts.” This, however, contradicts an Oct. 20 update from the CDC that states that defining close contacts must factor in proximity, the duration of exposure and whether the exposure was from a person with symptoms.

“Furthermore, while research indicates masks may help keep those who are infected from spreading the infection, there is less information regarding how much protection masks offer a contact exposed to a symptomatic or asymptomatic patient,” the memo reads. “Therefore, the determination of close contact should be made irrespective of whether the person with COVID-19 or the contact was wearing a mask.”

Lisa Cox, spokeswoman for the Missouri Department of Health and Senior Services, confirmed this is still the suggested guidance from the CDC. She said, however, that “at least five other states have adopted this modified guidance” and that they will continue to be in conversation with the CDC.

State Rep. Kip Kendrick, D-Columbia, said he hopes this decision by Parson prompts more schools across Missouri to adopt mask mandates.

The CDC recently released findings that masks don’t just protect those at risk of infection but also protect the wearer from acquiring the virus and that when both parties are wearing masks it further reduces the risk of infection. The findings did not redefine who should be considered a close contact.

Parson’s announcement comes as several schools in the St. Louis area revert to virtual learning during a surge in cases and hospitalizations. Over the past week, the St. Louis metro area has averaged 1,884 cases per day, an increase of 63%. The entire state has seen an increase of roughly 50% over the past week, now averaging about 4,000 cases per day.

According to the Department of Health and Senior Services coronavirus dashboard, the state’s positivity rate sits at 22%. There are also just under 2,250 people being hospitalized, with 518 in intensive care units and 248 on ventilators.

Vandeven said this new guidance for schools may help contain the spread of the virus, particularly among students.

“We also know that when our older students have to stay home from school to quarantine, they’re often getting together with their friends in their unstructured environment, and many are not distancing or wearing masks,” Vandeven said. “Having those students at school where distancing and masking can be monitored may be among the safest places for them and may help to further reduce overall community spread.”

Dr. Rachel Orscheln of St. Louis Children’s Hospital, who also spoke at the press briefing, said the science supports this change. She said that data in Missouri suggest that there are few secondary cases of the virus developing in students who were exposed when masks were worn.

“At this time it is reasonable to adapt our approach to take into consideration the mitigation measures that are being used and to allow for those students, who have a very low risk of infection, to remain in the school environment,” she said.

Orscheln spoke about the importance of masks, and Vandeven said DESE would support a mask mandate. But Parson again called it a political issue and reiterated that residents need to be personally responsible for stopping the spread of the virus.

“It is time we gotta step up,” Parson said. “We gotta do our part to protect one another. No government’s gonna do that for you. You have to take that upon yourself.”

An email sent to parents by the Mehlville School District in St. Louis County, which is among the schools returning to virtual learning, said no changes will be made to its quarantine recommendations. The email reads, in part: “We are aware of these new recommendations. We do not intend to make immediate changes to our protocol of asking students and staff to remain off campus following an exposure. We are currently reviewing these new state recommendations and awaiting further guidance from the St. Louis County Department of Public Health."

That’s in contrast to correspondence already sent to teachers in the Maryville School District in northwest Missouri. Superintendent Becky Albrecht, who was among a group of superintendents that sent a letter to Parson advocating for a change in quarantine guidelines, told staff that students will remain isolated Friday but will reach out to discuss re-entry possibilities soon. The elementary school does not have a mask mandate in place currently.

The Missouri National Education Association called Parson’s new guidance “dangerous” and said it could cause “irreparable harm.” The statement read, in part:

“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.”

COVID-19 liability

Parson also announced he wants the special legislative session addressing coronavirus relief funds to include COVID-19 liability protections for health care providers, manufacturers, businesses, schools, churches and nonprofit organizations.

“None of these groups should be penalized for their efforts to respond to a declared state of emergency,” Parson said. “They must be able to continue operating and serving the public without risk of unnecessary and frivolous claims.”

The legislation includes three main provisions that include liability for health care workers, product liability protection and premises liability protection.

House Minority Leader Crystal Quade, D-Springfield, said this proposal will “encourage reckless behavior.”

“Over and over, Governor Parson has stressed the need for personal responsibility in fighting COVID-19,” Quade said in a statement. “But for businesses that negligently put their employees and customers at risk, he doesn’t want them to have to take any responsibility at all.”

The Missouri Senate is expected to take up the proposal, along with the supplemental budget passed by the House, next week.

Jaclyn is the Jefferson City statehouse reporter for St. Louis Public Radio.