ST. LOUIS – As Missouri schools welcomed students at the end of last month, the choice to impose masks fell across different districts, leaving parents feeling compelled to decide for themselves whether or not it was safe. to send their children away. The fact that the public health measure has become so confrontational is a thorny issue for many people who wonder how best to keep their children safe.

Over the summer, the Missouri Department of Elementary and Secondary Education released guidelines for reopening schools, effectively allowing hundreds of school districts to decide whether or not to impose masks and making Missouri l one of more than 20 states to adopt such a policy. This guidance came after a spring lull in cases in the United States, and just as COVID infections started to rise again nationwide, driven by the increasingly dominant delta variant.

Nearly two dozen school districts in Missouri have reported more than 41 new cases of COVID in children 5 and older in the past two weeks, state data shows. Since the start of the pandemic, the state has recorded nearly 780,000 total cases and more than 11,000 deaths, according to the Missouri Department of Health and Human Services.

Tensions over school mask mandates rock this Mississippi town

Amanda Urick has one child enrolled in the Francis Howell School District, located in St. Charles County, just over 20 miles from the city of St. Louis. Last year they needed masks, but Urick kept his daughter at home for fear of the pandemic.

“We just didn’t think he was responsible” for sending him to school in person, she said. This year, with the advent of the vaccine, she and her husband decided to send their daughter away.

“We have felt a little better this year with the vaccine, with a better understanding of how COVID-19 works and we felt really happy that last year Francis Howell made masks mandatory, so we had some hope, ”said Urick.

Then, in July, the Francis Howell Board of Education voted to make masks optional. Urick said it left her uncomfortable.

“I was very frustrated,” said Urick, who has a doctorate. in cell and developmental biology. “I have a very good experience of how viruses work and what influences how they work.”

The emergence of the delta variant led the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention to update their guidelines for schools. The agency recommends that children attend in-person classrooms full-time and that all teachers, staff and students wear masks indoors, regardless of their immunization status.

Francis Howell also did revisions. In August, he announced he would require masks for kindergarten to sixth graders indoors, but only temporarily. A school statement added that staff who work with students in this age group – which includes Urick’s daughter – are required to wear masks when social distancing is not possible. “She’s doing pretty well with her mask on. Her teacher even sent me a picture to show me how she is, ”said Urick. Yet she remains concerned that children are at risk in her riding and others around her. According to the Francis Howell School District COVID dashboard, more than 200 students are in quarantine.

Even before the start of the school year, neighboring Jefferson County had seen a dramatic increase in coronavirus infections among children. According to data from the county health department, as of June, there were 59 cases of COVID among young people between the ages of 0 and 19. By July, that number had risen to 267, an increase of 352%. Yet many districts have adopted an optional mask policy.

This is despite Ministry of Health guidelines that schools should require “universal interior masking by all students (aged 2 and over), staff, teachers and visitors to schools from kindergarten to kindergarten. Grade 12, regardless of vaccination status.

In contrast, the vast majority of school systems in neighboring St. Louis County, home to about 1 million people, have made masks mandatory. His health department, like many across the state, has also urged children to mask themselves. Communications director Christopher Ave said an increase in infections prompted them to issue an updated health advisory in July.

“We have had an increase in hospitalizations, an increasing burden on our hospitals, since the delta variant of the virus took over,” he said.

As of September 7, 29 young people, aged 18 and under, were hospitalized for COVID in the four main hospital systems in the Saint-Louis region, according to the Saint-Louis Metropolitan Pandemic Task Force. Data released by the American Academy of Pediatrics in early September shows five children died from COVID in Missouri, and all five were from the St. Louis area.

Ave said the new average of daily cases in St. Louis County has slowed a bit and they hope hospitalizations will follow soon.

Laura Swenson has four children in Parkway Schools, a school system in St. Louis County. She said she was relieved when her district decided to require masks, and so far things have been going well.

“I want this pandemic to be over and I think it’s a proven way to slow the spread of the disease in a way that also keeps some normalcy for my children,” she said.

Samantha March, a relative in the Clayton School District, just west of St. Louis, said having children in three different schools was “a challenge.” She has one child each in elementary school, middle school and high school.

She acknowledged that the district’s effective communication had helped allay some of her concerns.

“They cite research as to why they do things and that makes me feel comfortable,” she said. According to the district’s website, the Clayton School District has a mask mandate.

March said the pandemic has been a time of uninterrupted change for parents, and it’s a challenge many are trying to juggle both physically and emotionally.

“Parents have had to constantly reassure themselves that they have to trust school systems to do what is best for their children,” added March.

Pushback against mandates

Although thousands of parents in Missouri have rallied online to support the rules on children wearing masks in schools, there have also been many detractors – both parents and politicians.

Some have shown up at public meetings to express their views. At a Francis Howell board meeting last month, a parent said the requirement to wear masks goes against everything he stands for. “Your tenure is not necessary, respectfully, masks should be a choice,” he added.

In Pleasant Hill, a town 33 miles from Kansas City, tensions over mask warrants erupted Tuesday after the city’s education council voted unanimously to make masks mandatory in schools. A fight broke outofficials said, and at least one person was handcuffed when sheriff’s deputies were called.

On August 24, just after the start of the school year in many districts, Missouri Attorney General Eric Schmitt sued school districts demanding masks for students and educators – specifically naming Columbia Public Schools, its board of directors and the superintendent as defendants. The city of Columbia is located in central Missouri and is home to the flagship University of Missouri campus, just under two hours from the city of St. Louis. As a class action lawsuit, it applies to every school district in the state that has a warrant.

The attorney general, who alleged the warrants were “arbitrary and capricious” and said the masks “do not protect against COVID” despite evidence that they do, has already sued for mask warrants. After several cities and counties in Missouri bolstered their mandates over the summer, Schmitt, a Republican candidate for the US Senate, also filed a lawsuit against them.

The standoff over mask warrants has caught the attention of the Biden administration. White House press secretary Jen Psaki said President Joe Biden found Schmitt’s trial “unacceptable.” Nationally, the U.S. Department of Education’s civil rights office announced on Aug. 30 that it would investigate school offices in Iowa, Tennessee, Oklahoma, Utah and the United States. South Carolina for banning mask warrants. In a letter to each state, the department said mask bans “could prevent schools … from meeting their legal obligations not to discriminate on the basis of disability and to provide equal educational opportunity to students with disabilities who are at risk. increased serious illness. of COVID-19. “

As legal challenges unfold and COVID cases increase among Missouri students in some areas, families prepare for another uncertain year.

“We take it day to day, last year things have changed so often that we’re just looking to see what the next month will be like,” said Laura Swenson.


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