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In anticipation of an announcement from the state on school quarantine rules, Franklin County officials are discussing quarantines with neighboring counties that have taken the issue into their own hands.

Presiding County Commissioner Tim Brinker met Wednesday with Gov. Mike Parson and his staff, along with St. Charles County Executive Steve Ehlmann and Jefferson County Executive Dennis Gannon, to discuss school quarantines. Both St. Charles and Jefferson counties have modified the state rules.

Brinker said school districts and residents are telling him they are confused by the rules and would like a more “real world” application of them.

“So that’s what we’re relaying to the governor’s office and DHSS (Missouri Department of Health and Senior Services),” Brinker said. 

Brinker said that after the meeting, he got word from the governor’s office that an announcement is scheduled for 1 p.m. Tuesday from the DHSS and the Department of Elementary and Secondary Education, though the nature of the announcement was not released publicly. 

Although she says she’s not sure “announcement” is the correct word, Kelli R. Jones, Parson’s communications director, said the governor’s office has been working with DHSS and DESE to provide updated guidance and recommendations to schools on quarantines.

“There will be some updated guidance/recommendations released soon,” she wrote in an email.

DHSS has reportedly been looking into a “test-to-stay” quarantine option in which students identified as close contacts would be allowed to stay in school and forgo quarantine if they continue to test negative for COVID-19 and don’t exhibit symptoms after being identified as a close contact. The policy would address the goal of many districts, including those in the area, of making sure students are learning in school as much as possible.

The Washington school board recently directed Superintendent Dr. Jennifer Kephart to consider the test-to-stay option. She said she has had conversations with Brinker about transitioning to the structure, but they agreed to wait for updated state guidance to be released.

School officials in the area, including Kephart and Superintendent Dr. Kyle Kruse, of St. Clair R-XIII, are in support of the less strict test-to-stay quarantine policy because it would result in fewer students studying virtually from home. 

Recent St. Clair numbers show that more than 90 percent of students in quarantine end up not testing positive for COVID-19, Kruse said.

“So there are a lot of students that don’t get sick who spent quite a bit of time at home, and that’s just a very difficult thing to have kids at home and still being provided the education they deserve,” Kruse said.

The meeting — and news of a possible change in state policy — comes after a county commission workshop Tuesday in which commissioners discussed possible changes to quarantine rules with Franklin County Health Department officials. 

Tony Buel, public health supervisor for the health department, said Franklin County is currently following the least strict official state guidance for school quarantines. Under the guidance, students who were in close contact with someone with COVID-19 but were wearing masks don’t have to quarantine, and students who are vaccinated don’t have to quarantine unless they get sick themselves.

Franklin County schools also are allowed to have the “test-out” option in which students who test negative for COVID-19 on the fifth, sixth or seventh days of quarantine can return to class if they are asymptomatic, which many counties don’t allow, Buel said. All county districts have adopted that policy, with Washington being the last to approve it in September.

The counties that have moved away from the state guidance all have different policies, though each puts more of the monitoring burden on school nurses instead of health departments, health department Director Angie Hittson said.

Jefferson County, which changed its rules Sept. 2, allows students to stay in class if they are in close contact with someone who has COVID-19, but all students and teachers in the class must wear masks. 

St. Francois County, which changed rules Sept. 20, allows students who had a close contact to remain in school even if neither party was masked, Hittson said. Students have to wear a mask for 14 days after a close contact. Students can observe extracurricular activities but not play sports during quarantine.

St. Charles County, which changed quarantine rules Sept. 30, allows students who are wearing a mask at the time they are exposed to COVID-19 to remain in class, even if the person with COVID-19 was not masked. The exposed person will be monitored for wearing a secured mask for 10 days, Hittson said.

Students exposed to COVID-19 by a person in their household still have to quarantine in St. Charles.

Brinker said the county commission has been unfairly accused of mandating quarantine rules. “We can unequivocally say we have not been the driving force of any changes or implementation in statute because we can’t,” he said. “We’re simply going by the interpretation you are bound by as a state health agency.”