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Educators balk at Parson’s push to ease school quarantines

(AP) — Gov. Mike Parson announced on Thursday new guidance aimed at keeping more children, teachers and staff in school, even those who have been exposed to the coronavirus. Parson cited concern that quarantines interrupt learning and produce staff shortages.

But the change was quickly dismissed by leaders of St. Louis, St. Louis County and Kansas City, who said schools should continue to require quarantines for anyone who has direct contact with someone with the virus.

Currently, anyone in a K-12 setting who is directly exposed to the coronavirus must quarantine for 14 days. The new guidance does not require quarantining if both the infected person and the person exposed had been wearing masks.

The change comes as the virus continues to surge, with Missouri reporting 4,603 confirmed new cases Thursday, 16 more deaths and a record 2,248 people in hospitals. The state has cited 225,371 confirmed cases and 3,339 deaths since the pandemic began. The current positivity rate of 22.4% is more than four times the benchmark recommended by the World Health Organization.

As of Wednesday night, St. Louis had tallied 9,796 confirmed cases, with 232 suspected cases. The city has suffered 219 deaths from the virus.

Missouri has no statewide mask mandate, and the state does not require masks in schools although some districts do.

Parson, a Republican, reiterated Thursday that he opposed a statewide mask requirement. But he said state officials believed the guidance change “will lead to more schools encouraging proper mask usage, helping to further protect students and educators from the spread of the virus.”

The new guidance still requires the person who tests positive to isolate at home. Meanwhile, those who have close contact with an infected person at a school without a mask mandate should continue to require 14 days of home quarantine.

Dr. Rachel Orscheln, an infectious disease expert at the Washington University School of Medicine and St. Louis Children’s Hospital, spoke alongside Parson at a news conference in Jefferson City.

“In schools where students and staff are always wearing masks and practicing physical distancing, this virus does not spread as easily as it does in other places where these strategies are not always used,” Orscheln said.

Missouri Department of Elementary and Secondary Education Commissioner Margie Vandeven said current quarantining practices were resulting in staffing shortages and keeping too many children at home, where many struggle to keep up without the structure of in-person learning.

Vandeven said teachers had worked tirelessly to make the current system work. “But quite frankly, it’s exhausting, and it is not sustainable,” she said.

Vandeven said Iowa, Nebraska and Wyoming had implemented similar protocols without increases in confirmed cases at their schools.

St. Louis Public Schools said in a statement that, after consulting with the city health department, the district would “continue to follow COVID-19 guidelines issued by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention” and require quarantine for close contacts.

St. Louis County’s health department said in a statement that it also would not change its guidance.

“Now is not the time to weaken our quarantine policies here in St. Louis County,” the statement said. “Doing so would reduce the effectiveness of one of the most powerful tools we have to prevent spread.”

And Kansas City Mayor Quinton Lucas cited the “increasing uncontrolled spread of COVID-19 in our community” in announcing that the city wouldn’t recommend that schools follow the new guidance.

Parson acknowledged that COVID-19 cases and hospitalizations had risen in recent weeks “more than we ever thought they would. That is the hard fact of where this virus is going.”

Parson allowed the state to reopen in mid-June. He often urges personal responsibility to control the spread of the virus but has declined to issue statewide restrictions. He cited his overwhelming election victory on Nov. 3 as evidence that residents agreed with his approach.

“But I’m here to tell you this to all my Missourians: It is time we’ve got to step up,” Parson said. “We’ve got to do our part to protect one another. No government’s going to do that for you. You have to take that upon yourself.”

Parson also announced that he would seek a special legislative session to consider liability protection against coronavirus-related lawsuits for health care providers, manufacturers, businesses, schools, churches, nonprofit organizations and others. The session will probably take place sometime around Thanksgiving, he said.

The virus is causing havoc at universities, too. The University of Missouri-Columbia announced Thursday that it would move classes online after Thanksgiving, with plans to return to in-person classes in the spring semester. Chancellor Mun Y. Choi cited concern about the rise in cases in Columbia and Boone County. staff contributed to this report.

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