ARNOLD, Mo. (AP) — With the start of the new school year fast approaching, some parents in two suburban St. Louis districts are questioning why most students will not be required to wear face coverings, decisions that conflict with federal and local health guidelines.
Some parents in St. Charles and Jefferson counties are urging school leaders to reconsider their decisions to allow students to attend classes without masks.
“There’s a lot of anxiety about sending kids into classrooms,” said Amberly Keach, whose two children attend schools in the Fox district in the Jefferson County town of Arnold, which has a mask-optional policy.
“If we are going to accomplish having all students in person long-term, we have to respect the mitigation measures that will keep our children safe in that environment and allow them to continue to stay in school,” Keach wrote in a recent letter to Superintendent Paul Fregeau and the Fox School Board.
The Jefferson County Health Department recommends “universal indoor masking” for students, staff, teachers and visitors, according to an update issued Wednesday by Executive Director Kelley Vollmar.
There were 267 cases of COVID-19 among children in the county in July, nearly five times the 59 cases in June.
The Fox district plan recommends masks for all students and staff but says “each family and staff member may choose to wear a mask or not based on their personal preference.”
Parents who oppose the mandates say masking is a medical decision that should be left up to families.
Wearing a mask “interferes with their social learning, distorts verbal speech, and removes visual cues for the hard of hearing. Face covering policies not only inhibit peer-to-peer learning but also pose social and emotional distress to children,” reads a letter from parents in the Rockwood School District in St. Louis County. All St. Louis city and county students and staff will be required to wear masks, regardless of vaccination status.
The Ferguson-Florissant School District in St. Louis County went a step further, announcing Monday that all staff members must get vaccinated against COVID-19 or submit to weekly testing.
Pro-mask parents say children younger than 12, who are not eligible for vaccines, are particularly vulnerable to catching the delta variant of COVID-19. They note the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, the American Academy of Pediatrics and other medical groups recommend universal masking in schools.
About 20 parents and students protested Friday in favor of mask mandates at the “Parents for Safe Schools” rally at the St. Charles County Health Department. Among ages 5 to 19, cases of the virus in St. Charles County rose from 71 in June to 379 in July.
As Missouri’s vaccination rate continues to lag well below the national average, thousands of vaccine doses in the state are going to waste.
The Kansas City Star reported Monday that Missouri vaccine providers had thrown away more than 81,000 doses. The Star cited data from the state health department.
Reasons vary. Initially, vaccines tended to go to waste as a result of handling issues, broken syringes or vials that ended up with unused doses at the end of the day. But in recent weeks, some doses have expired because so few people are looking to get vaccinated.
Missouri reported 1,114 newly confirmed cases of the virus on Monday and no new deaths. Hospital in-bed availability is at 16% of capacity, and intensive care unit availability across Missouri is at 14%, according to the state health department’s COVID-19 dashboard.