In one Missouri school district, tension and confusion over school board’s changing COVID protocols

WENTZVILLE, Mo. – After homeschooling her second and third graders for most of 2020 and 2021, Jessica Liebmann decided to send them back to the Wentzville School District last fall. Six months and several COVID-19 variants later, she is now concerned that precautions are not in place to ensure her children are protected in the classroom.

“You’re supposed to be safeguarding the best interests for the families and the students within the district and it just really doesn’t feel like they’re doing that,” Liebmann said, referring to policies set by the district’s board of education.

In recent months, parents and teachers have raised concerns about decisions made by the Wentzville Board of Education, which oversees a district located 40 miles from St. Louis with more than 17,000 students. As in other communities across the country, Wentzville has struggled with questions about how to keep students and employees safe, but also keep the school running.

Much of the tension started to rise when the board voted in December to lift COVID mitigation measures such as contact tracing procedures for close contacts of positive cases and to instead work on “recommendations for how staff will communicate possible COVID exposures to families.” In an email a spokesperson for the district told the NewsHour while they are no longer “contact tracing,” they “will notify families if we know a student in the same classroom or bus tested positive.”

In Missouri, the state has left the decision of how to mitigate COVID-19 up to individual school systems. According to the Missouri Department of Education “there are no statewide health mandates related to K-12 school operations issued at this time” as it states in its most recent version of its Missouri School COVID-19 Operating Guidance, which provides state-level recommendations for systems to use at their discretion.

READ MORE: Missouri left mask rules up to school districts. Parents say their kids are at risk

According to the district’s website, current policy only recommends unvaccinated students and staff who have been exposed to stay at home for five days, get tested on the fifth day and to go back to school on the sixth day only if they are asymptomatic. They are also asked to stay masked for six to 10 days. Students and staff that are vaccinated are asked to monitor symptoms, get tested on the fifth day, and to wear a mask for 10 days. But these are not requirements. In the same email the district said it leaves it up to families to “determine what is in the best interest of their children.”

Challenges to mask mandates and COVID mitigation efforts have grown across the state in recent months. On Jan. 24, Missouri Attorney General Eric Schmitt filed suit against nine school systems “to halt their illegal mask mandate policies,” according to a press release from Schmitt’s office. “Masking children all day in school is ineffective and these endless pandemic restrictions lead to lasting, negative psychological impacts on children and teens,” the Missouri attorney general said. There is a large body of scientific evidence that shows that masks slow the spread of COVID-19. This move came just days after he filed suit against 36 other school districts in the state for the same reason.

Parents say while the board is making decisions to cease contact tracing and the state leaders are taking action against the districts, they are left to figure out what to do.

“It’s so disheartening, it is frustrating, it evokes a rage,” Liebmann said.

In Wentzville, a particular concern from parents and administrators is that the board is not being more proactive with policy as it, like other districts across the country, faces challenges in how it manages COVID cases and ongoing teacher shortages.

At a special board meeting called last month, Wentzville School District Superintendent Curtis Cain said the district’s fill rate at the time for substitutes was 43.2 percent, almost 30 percent less than where he said it needs to be. The district’s positivity rate was above 3 percent, “which we have not seen yet this year or last,” Asst. Supt. of Student Services Dr. Jeri LaBrot told the board.

At the time, Cain called on the board to be proactive so the district’s situation would not escalate. He asked the board to consider requiring masks in any schools that reached a 3 percent positivity rate among students and staff. The board did not bring the idea to a vote.

“Not only are we having staff members that are out for a variety of reasons including positivity [for COVID], but you can see what is happening to our fill rates as well, its creating holes that are leading us to having to find and create ways to keep doors open,” Cain said back in January.

READ MORE: As COVID surges in New Orleans, every day is unpredictable for teachers and parents

The mask policy for the Wentzville School District, like most across the country, has changed over time. During the 2020-2021 school year administration required masking for students in the third grade and up. That changed last June after Cain told the board during an open session that masks would be optional. Then in September, the board voted on masking at individual schools, then later in the month voted to increase the masking requirement threshold to 5 percent. Now under the system’s list of recommendations, it asks students and staff to mask when social distancing is not possible, but does not require them.

The Centers for Disease Control and the American Academy of Pediatrics have both continued to recommend wearing masks in schools, but some states have lifted mask mandates in recent days and a small collection of pediatricians have come forward to recommend against masking in schools, citing impact on mental health and on students with disabilities.

What has struck many parents in Wentzville over the course of the omicron spike were board members’ comments about COVID and how to deal with it. At one point, a board member said “with this new virus there’s nothing stopping it and I don’t think a mask is going to stop it.” Another board member stated she was hearing that the Omicron variant would bring an end to COVID. Both raised doubts that masks could make a difference or that their efficacy had been proven with data, despite a large body of research and emphasis from national and global health officials that they significantly reduce spread and risk of infection.

The back-and-forth between the board and the staff have left parents uneasy as they try to keep up with the changes- some even banding together to contact trace on their own.

“It was giving me anxiety,” Liebmann, who has been watching board meetings from home, said before turning this meeting off.

The PBS NewsHour reached out to the district with questions about its staffing shortage and how it was responding to parent and teacher concerns. In an email the district said it will “continue to work to address the concerns of our district community” and that it places “a great deal of attention on the safety and well-being of our students, staff, and community as a whole.” The NewsHour also reached out to the president of Wentzville’s board of education, who did not immediately respond to requests for comment.

But by the time the district’s regularly scheduled board meeting came around on Jan. 20, teachers showed up for public comment to share the voices of their fellow teachers who did not want to be named or those who were home recovering from COVID.

“If COVID is just a cold, can someone explain why my neighbor can’t play with his kids like he used to?” one educator read on behalf of another. “Until COVID, he was a healthy man in his 40s and now he has a defibrillator and he can’t drive because his heart has stopped twice from the damage of COVID.”

She continued to share comments from teacher after teacher.

“We are putting the children in our classes before our own families and then being told to ride the bus until the wheels fall off by someone who doesn’t even have kids in the district,” she said, referring to a comment a board member made at a meeting held in January.

Wentzville National Education Association President Julia Luetkenhaus spoke as well, sharing that she had never been embarrassed to work for the district until the day of the emergency
board meeting, calling it a “travesty.”

Noelle, a parent in the district who asked to be identified using only part of her name because her spouse is employed there and fears retribution, is also a nurse who has treated young COVID patients at a hospital in St. Louis. During a car ride home from work, she expressed exhaustion.

“I just don’t understand why this is just so hard to get through people’s heads,” she said.

As a healthcare worker and a parent, she said she is frustrated watching the case numbers go up and school mitigation efforts cease.

“We’re exhausted. We’re short-staffed. We are just so tired of this,” she said. “I really hope those board members one day walk a day in my shoes, see what I see.”

Editor’s note: This story has been updated to remove outdated data provided by the district.

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