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

ST. LOUIS – As schools in Missouri welcomed students late last month, the choice to mandate masks fell to individual districts, leaving parents feeling like they had to decide on their own whether or not it was safe to send their children back. The fact that the public health measure has become so divisive is a vexing issue for many struggling with how best to keep their kids safe.

Over the summer, the Missouri Department of Elementary and Secondary Education issued school reopening guidance, effectively allowing hundreds of school districts to decide whether or not to mandate masks and making Missouri one of more than 20 states to adopt such a policy. That guidance came after a spring lull of cases in the U.S., and just as COVID infections began to surge again nationally, driven by the increasingly dominant delta variant.

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

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Amanda Urick has a child enrolled in the Francis Howell School District, which sits in St. Charles County, a little over 20 miles from St. Louis City. Last year, they required masks, but Urick kept her daughter home out of concern about the pandemic.

“We just didn’t feel it was responsible” to send her to in-person school, she said. This year, with the advent of the vaccine, she and her husband decided to send their daughter back.

“We felt a little bit 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 mandated masks, so we were hopeful,” Urick said.

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

“I was very frustrated,” said Urick, who has a Ph.D. in cell and developmental biology. “I have a very strong background in how viruses work and what plays into how viruses operate.”

The emergence of the delta variant led the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention to update its guidance for schools. The agency recommends that children should be attending in-person classrooms full-time, and that all teachers, staff and students wear masks indoors regardless of vaccination status.

Francis Howell also made revisions. In August it announced it would require masks for pre-K through sixth grade students while indoors, but only temporarily. A statement from the school added that staff who work with students in that age range — which includes Urick’s daughter — are required to wear masks when social distancing is not possible. “She’s been doing pretty well with her mask. Her teacher even sent me a picture to show me how she’s doing,” Urick said. Still, she remains concerned about whether kids are at risk in her county and others that surround it. According to the Francis Howell School District’s COVID Dashboard, more than 200 students are in quarantine.

Even before the school year had started, nearby Jefferson County had seen a dramatic jump in coronavirus infections among children. According to county health department data, in June there were 59 COVID cases in young people aged zero to 19. By July, that number had jumped to 267, a 352-percent increase. Yet many districts went ahead with an optional mask policy.

That’s despite health department guidance that schools should require “universal indoor masking by all students (age 2 and older), staff, teachers, and visitors to K-12 schools, regardless of vaccination status.”

In contrast, the vast majority of school systems in neighboring St. Louis County, home to about 1 million people, have mandated masks. Its health department, like many across the state, also urged masking among children. Director of communications Christopher Ave said a surge in infections led them to issue an updated health advisory in July.

“We’ve had a spike in hospitalizations, an increasing burden on our hospitals, since the delta variant of the virus has taken over,” he said.

As of Sept. 7 there were 29 young people, 18 years old and younger, hospitalized with COVID in the four major St. Louis-area hospital systems , according to the St. Louis Metropolitan Pandemic Taskforce. Data released from the American Academy of Pediatrics in early September shows that five children have died from COVID in Missouri, and all five came from the St. Louis region.

Ave said that the new average of daily cases in St. Louis county has slowed down a bit and they are hoping hospitalizations will soon follow.

Laura Swenson has four kids 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 are going well.

“I want this pandemic to be over and feel this is a proven way to slow the spread of disease in a way that also preserves some normalcy for my kids,” she said.

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

She credited effective communication from the district for helping ease some of her worry.

“They are citing research for why they are doing things and that makes me feel comfortable,” she said. According to the district’s website, the School District of Clayton does have a mask mandate.

March said the pandemic has been a nonstop period of change for parents, and it is a challenge many are trying to juggle both physically and emotionally.

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

Pushback against mandates

Though thousands of parents in Missouri have mobilized online to support rules on kids wearing masks in schools, there have also been many detractors — both parents and politicians.

Some have shown up to public meetings to voice their views. At a Francis Howell board meeting last month, one parent said that mandating masks was against everything he stood for. “Your mandate is not needed, respectfully, masks should be a choice,” he added.

In Pleasant Hill, a city 33 miles from Kansas City, tensions over mask mandates boiled over on Tuesday after the city’s board of education unanimously voted to mandate masks in schools. A fistfight broke out, officials said, and at least one person was handcuffed when the sheriff’s deputies were called.

On Aug. 24, just after the school year had begun in many districts, Missouri Attorney General Eric Schmitt sued school districts mandating masks for students and educators –specifically naming Columbia Public Schools, its board of education and the superintendent as defendants. The city of Columbia is located in central Missouri and is home to the University of Missouri’s flagship campus, a little under two hours from St. Louis City. As a class-action lawsuit, it applies to every school district in the state that has a mandate.

The attorney general, who alleged the mandates were “arbitrary and capricious” and said masks “fail to provide protection against COVID” despite evidence that they do, has sued over mask mandates before. After several Missouri cities and counties reinforced mandates over the summer, Schmitt, a Republican candidate for U.S. Senate, filed suit against them as well.

The tug-of-war over mask mandates has caught the attention of the Biden administration. White House press secretary Jen Psaki said that President Joe Biden found Schmitt’s lawsuit “unacceptable.” On a national level, the U.S. Department of Education’s Office for Civil Rights announced on Aug. 30 it would investigate school offices in Iowa, Tennessee, Oklahoma, Utah and South Carolina for prohibiting mask mandates. In a letter to each state, the department said the mask mandate bans “may be preventing schools…from meeting their legal obligations not to discriminate based on disability and from providing an equal educational opportunity to students with disabilities who are at heightened risk of severe illness from COVID-19.”

As the legal challenges play out and COVID cases rise among Missouri students in some areas, families are bracing for another uncertain year.

“We are taking things day by day, last year things changed so often that we are just looking to see what next month looks like,” Laura Swenson said.