During next Monday’s meeting of the Cuba School Board, Superintendent Jon Earnhart will recommend approval of a new mask mandate, along with the passage of a resolution proclaiming all school staff members are “essential workers.”
While the recommendations are coming after a seven-day, in-person school shutdown that ended Tuesday, the changes are being proposed because of last week’s announcement by the state that students and teachers will no longer have to quarantine if they are exposed to someone who has tested positive for COVID-19 if they have all been wearing masks.
“I plan to recommend the adoption of a mask mandate and approve the guidelines that allow us to not quarantine healthy individuals, when they have been masked when in contact with a positive individual,” Earnhart said Monday. “To date, we cannot connect any of our positive cases to being a direct contact with another positive case in the district. We have continually quarantined healthy people, who have not gotten sick after being a direct contact. To me, it makes sense to allow healthy individuals to remain at school.”
On November 12, Missouri Governor Mike Parson, the Department of Health and Senior Services (DHSS), and the Department of Elementary and Secondary Education (DESE) announced modifications to Missouri’s K-12 school reopening and operating guidance, noting the large number of students and school staff members quarantined in recent weeks has presented a significant strain for educators, school leaders, and Missouri families alike.
“We know that COVID-19 is not going away soon, so it is important that we continue to evaluate the guidance we’re issuing at the state level to make sure our procedures are sustainable for the next several months,” Parson said. “We have been working hard with DESE and DHSS to find a solution that allows us to continue providing the high-quality education our students deserve while still keeping them, our teachers, and all school staff members safe.”
Under the updated guidance, proper mask wearing may now prevent individuals from being identified as close contacts in K-12 schools that have implemented a mask mandate. This means that if both individuals at school—the person diagnosed with COVID-19 and the person exposed to the positive case—have masks on and are wearing them correctly, the individual exposed does not need to quarantine. Missouri is just the second state, after North Dakota, to issue such guidance, which is not a current protocol recommended by the Centers for Disease Control (CDC).
Under the new state guideline, exposed individuals should self-monitor for symptoms and stay home at the first sign of illness. They should also continue to wear a mask at all times to further reduce the likelihood of transmitting the virus. Anyone testing positive for COVID-19 is still required to isolate at home. Close contacts in K-12 schools should continue to quarantine at home for 14 days if (1) their school does not require students and staff to wear masks, or (2) the mask was not being worn appropriately by either the person diagnosed with COVID-19 or the person who was exposed.
“Another reasoning for me (to follow the new state guideline) is because of the impact that we see excluding students is having on their mental health,” Earnhart said. “I agree we need to be concerned about the physical health of everyone, but at some point, we need to address the impact this pandemic, specifically excluding kids from school and activities is having on their mental health. I speak to parents and health care professionals all the time that express their concern for the mental health of our students. I am told students are experiencing fear, depression, heightened anxiety, severe mood swings, social distress, and often anger outbursts due to quarantine. Our students want to be in school.”
Legislation passed earlier this year allows school districts to deem staff as “essential employees” as long as they have the support of their local health department. There are CDC guidelines that have to be followed to help protect everyone, but still allow employees to come to work under the following conditions:
• Pre-Screen: Employers should measure the employee’s temperature and assess symptoms prior to them starting work. Ideally, temperature checks should happen before the individual enters the facility.
• Regular Monitoring: As long as the employee doesn’t have a temperature or symptoms, they should self-monitor under the supervision of their employer’s occupational health program.
• Wear a Mask: The employee should wear a face mask at all times while in the workplace for 14 days after last exposure. Employers can issue facemasks or can approve employees’ supplied cloth face coverings in the event of shortages.
• Social Distance: The employee should maintain six feet and practice social distancing as work duties permit in the workplace.
• Disinfect and Clean work spaces: Clean and disinfect all areas such as offices, bathrooms, common areas, shared electronic equipment routinely.
“When we consider that the only closures we have had, have both been directly related to the lack of staff due to quarantine, this one makes sense to me,” Earnhart said, “especially when we consider that we cannot connect any of our positive cases to another positive case within the district. We will obviously strictly adhere to the CDC guidelines.”
Earnhart noted that in every case where the district has quarantined staff members, anyone whose duties allow them to work from home has done so.
“While these individuals are still working from home, it is not the same as physically being at work, especially when you consider the impact on learning,” Earnhart said. “Educational staff members are simply more effective when working at the building, with students present, than they are virtually. In addition, we have an overwhelming majority of our staff who want to be at work, rather than trying to work from home. The feedback I get from our staff says they want to be at school. I applaud them for their desire to do what’s best for student learning.”
In regard to both the mask mandate and essential worker designation, Earnhart said the district will be flexible and look at going back to the way things are now (quarantining all direct contacts) should administrators determine these two changes are leading to more positive cases or have a negative impact on the district’s ability to remain open.
“While I will recommend both of these changes, I will be very diligent about monitoring the impact they potentially have on school,” he said.
As far as anything else the district might do to keep schools open, Earnhart says he is not sure what that would be. This district already delivers breakfast to every classroom, has modified lunch shifts so only a portion of each lunch shift eats in the cafeteria allowing students to social distance (half eat in their classrooms), spread out classrooms as much as possible, has teachers disinfect every desk in use in their classrooms after each period, disinfects bathrooms regularly throughout the day, mandates masks in transitions, on the bus, and when social distancing is not possible, has hand sanitizer stations throughout the buildings and in classrooms, disinfects locker rooms, classrooms, hallways, and doors and walls each night, and screens everyone for fever and symptoms each day as they enter the buildings.
“I think we are doing all we can to prevent, contain and be able to contact trace,” Earnhart said. “I know several schools are looking at or going to a temporary hybrid model, but I feel that would put too big a strain on our community businesses and parents, with little reward. The feedback I receive tells me that our staff, students, and parents want our buildings open and in-seat learning to be available. I believe it our responsibility to provide in-seat learning as long as we can do it safely. I personally believe our procedures and protocols are working and we have maintained a safe and healthy environment for our students and staff. I am proud of our staff, our students and our parents. Educating students in a global pandemic is difficult, but I am proud of the work we are doing and the way we have come together for the benefit of our kids and community.”