Students in grades kindergarten through third in the Washington School District will be required to wear masks, starting Monday, Nov. 23.
Elementary-age students in fourth, fifth, and sixth grade already have been wearing masks to school, along with students at Washington Middle and High schools. The mask requirement does not apply to students at the district’s early childhood education center.
The district’s mask mandate is stricter than the mask mandate issued by Franklin County this week, which only applies to people age 10 and older.
District officials also said they will continue to follow U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention guidelines for quarantining students and staff who were in close contact with a COVID-19 positive individual rather than the new guidance issued by Gov. Mike Parson last week.
The decisions to implement the new mask policy was unanimously approved by the board of education Wednesday, Nov. 18.
As of Wednesday, the district has 436 individuals quarantined districtwide, with 13 staff members and 14 students positive for COVID-19.
The Missouri Department of Health and Senior Services, which has been tracking COVID-19 cases in public schools, reports 120 school-age children between 5 and 19 years old, have tested positive for COVID-19 since March. In the last 14 days, the number of positive cases was 28. The state has not been tracking cases in parochial schools.
With the number of cases rising in the county, Dr. Lori VanLeer, superintendent, suggested the district implement its mask requirement Monday, Nov. 30. However, board member Jason Osterly suggested the policy be implemented Monday, Nov. 23, which the rest of the board members agreed with.
Conflicting Quarantining Guidance
The CDC guidelines state if two individuals are wearing a mask and one is COVID-19 positive, the other individual will have to quarantine for two weeks if they were within 6 feet of each other for longer than 15 minutes.
Under the recommendations from the state, proper mask wearing helps prevent the spread of the COVID-19 virus. Individuals, including teachers and students, who wear masks and are then later identified as being in close contact with a COVID-19-positive person would not have to quarantine for two weeks.
VanLeer said the Franklin County Health Department has adopted the new guidelines from the state rather than the CDC. A Nov. 13 email from Franklin County Presiding Commissioner Tim Brinker confirmed that the health department had adopted these new guidelines.
Board members Susan Thatcher, Scott Byrne, Dan Leslie and Matt Wilson spoke in favor of continuing to follow the CDC guidelines for quarantines and implementing the mask policy.
“Our No. 1 concern is the health and safety of our kids, as well as academic achievement, and we cannot go wrong by being extra safe,” Leslie said. “No one ever complained about being extra cautious ... I’d rather stick with the CDC guidelines.”
Wilson was among the most vocal of the board members and referenced Franklin County’s current positivity rate over the last 14 days.
“First off, let’s look at the community. We are at 28.1 percent ... (The new Missouri policy) is not what the CDC recommends,” Wilson said. “Teachers were scared before, and now with the new guidelines they are terrified. We are getting emails asking for help. We can’t go to Missouri guidelines and tell them we are helping them.”
The district is currently in a hybrid learning model for students in grades seventh through 12th. Students in the district’s seven elementary schools are doing in-person learning five days a week.
Two parents spoke during the meeting’s public comments portion. Karl Wolfseck and Lee Zimmermann were in favor of in-person learning five days a week.
Wolfseck said he has two children in the district, one attending Augusta Elementary and the other at Washington Middle School.
“My son in middle school is struggling because we both work. We have two decisions: one, leave him by himself to do his homework by himself with no help,” Wolfseck said. “The other, in which a lot of people are doing, they are sending their children to other people’s homes in large groups.”
He added in those situations, the environment is oftentimes less sanitized and the children are not social distancing.
“We are missing an opportunity in a school setting to teach our children how to properly social distance, sanitize themselves and the areas around themselves, and give them the life skills they need to protect themselves further,” Wolfseck said.
Zimmermann repeated the same sentiment, stating the children need structure.
While the board did not discuss the hybrid model, VanLeer did recommend the district stay in the hybrid model. The board did not take a vote to continue the hybrid model, but did grant VanLeer to close individual buildings due to a COVID-19 outbreak.