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Multiple St. Louis-area school districts are considering making masks optional

Lisa Heithhaus, a staff registered nurse, administers the COVID-19 vaccine to Ben Meyerkord, 11, of Crestwood, on Tuesday, Nov. 9, 2021, at St. Louis Children’s Hospital. The federal government recently approved vaccinations for children from 5 to 12 years-of-age.
Brian Munoz
St. Louis Public Radio
In November, 5- to 12-year-old children began to receive the COVID-19 vaccine. Districts say that expanded age group is among the reasons they are considering lifting mask mandates.

This story was updated at 11 a.m. Friday, Dec. 17, to include information about districts that voted to adopt mask-optional policies on Thursday.

As the first semester comes to a close, some school boards are meeting in the St. Louis region to begin to consider what the end of mask mandates will look like.

In multiple districts, officials are weighing how to scale back COVID-19 mitigation policies as soon as next month.

Lindbergh, Rockwood and Francis Howell school districts all voted Thursday to make masks optional in the coming weeks.

Earlier in the week the Kirkwood School Board adopted a plan to recommend masks, rather than require them. The plan goes into effect on Dec. 22 for older students and on Jan. 18 for kids in kindergarten through sixth grade.

The Parkway School Board approved a similar plan on Wednesday that could make masks optional starting in mid-January as well, but the policy is subject to change.

“What we plan to do is observe data over the next month,” said Jeff Todd, president of the Parkway School Board. “We will be reviewing conditions in our community, as well as recommendations from local, state and national health organizations. We'll also be observing data from some of the neighboring districts whose mitigation strategies may vary slightly from ours.”

In a letter to parents, Parkway’s Superintendent Keith Marty said the change is in response to the increased access to vaccinations, the removal of St. Louis County’s mask mandate and the recent court ruling from Cole County.

“I am aware of the significant impact these decisions have on all we serve in our schools each day,” Marty said. “The needs and desires of each family, student and staff member can be conflicting and that makes the decisions more difficult.”

Last week, officials in Mehlville also adopted a resolution to make masks optional, first for older students, then for younger students.

Rising cases

Earlier this week, the St. Louis County Department of Public Health announced cases of COVID-19 are “rising sharply” in schools in the county.

Cases are the highest they have been this school year among staff and the second-highest among students, according to an analysis of data ending the week of Dec. 4. The county also recorded the highest number of pediatric cases since November 2020.

Most of the districts considering lifting COVID-19 mitigation policies say they would require them again if cases rise above certain thresholds, and they could still reverse course, depending on how the next month goes.

“I think we'll get there,” Todd said. “I'm not sure if it'll be in 30 days for it to be in 60 days or when we'll finally be back to where we were, but I think we're moving in the right direction.”

These discussions are also coming as school officials are working to respond to calls from Missouri’s Attorney General telling them to drop health mandates that are in violation of a Cole County circuit court judge’s ruling.

Many districts said the ruling does not apply to them because their elected boards approved their health mandates, and they believe they have the authority to enact mandates under other Missouri statutes. Meanwhile, other districts are voting on health measures for the first time to make sure they are in compliance with the ruling.

Follow Kate on Twitter: @KGrumke

Kate Grumke covers the environment, climate and agriculture for St. Louis Public Radio and Harvest Public Media.