As COVID rises, Missouri schools prepare for mask requirements, limited remote learning; attorney general promises mask litigation

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Schools throughout Missouri are ready to implement COVID-19 strategies, including mask mandates and remote learning, as positivity rates, infections, hospitalizations continue to increase.

As Republican Gov. Mike Parson let all COVID emergency orders expire on Dec. 31, 2021, Republican Attorney General Eric Schmitt, a candidate for the seat of retiring U.S. Senator Roy Blunt, withdrew his lawsuit against Columbia Public Schools for its mask mandate. However, Schmitt’s spokesman pledged more legal action against Columbia and any school district requiring masks for any reason.

Health care leaders throughout the state are emphasizing the importance of indoor mask requirements in schools along with vaccinations. More than 200 doctors in western Missouri signed an open letter to the Johnson County Board of County Commissioners and all school board members and administrators in the region to continue mask mandates.

“As medical professionals who have collectively treated thousands of COVID patients, our recommendation is to keep the K-8 mask mandate in place and to bring back the high school mandate until we are on the other side of this historic surge,” the letter stated. “Specifically, our recommendations are for K-12 students, teachers, staff, school administrators, and visitors to wear well-fitted masks until the Johnson County positivity rate decreases to 5% or less.”

The positivity rate in Johnson County on Tuesday was 19.5%, an increase of 4.3 percentage points compared to last week, according to the Department of Health and Senior Services website. The positivity rate in Missouri was 28%, an increase of 12 percentage points during the last seven days.

Chris Nuelle, a spokesman for the attorney general, said the catalyst to drop the lawsuit — made without a subsequent media release — was Columbia’s school board voting 4-3 on Dec. 13 to drop its “illegal mask mandate.”

“However, we stand ready to refile if the situation changes in our fight to protect the freedom of parents to make their own personal health decisions for their families,” Nuelle wrote in an email to The Center Square.

Michelle Baumstark, chief communications officer for Columbia Public Schools, said in a statement the district was pleased with the dismissal of the case. When it was filed last August, Schmitt requested class-action status to include all schools with a mask mandate to be affected by the ruling. The judge denied his request.

“Columbia Public Schools appreciates the recognition of the impact COVID has on public schools and importance of a local public school district’s ability to make necessary decisions to keep students, teachers, and staff members safe and in school,” Baumstark said in a statement. “The Columbia Board of Education and Columbia Public Schools continue to support the importance of local control when making decisions that are in direct response to the individual needs of each community.”

Some school boards approved policies to end mask mandates when students returned to class this week or at the start of the second semester in mid-January. Many policies, including Columbia’s, include triggers to reinstate mandatory mask requirements when illnesses and absences of students and teachers increase to certain levels. Another trigger is when positivity rates in the school or county rise above a certain percentage.

In eastern Missouri, the Rockwood School District’s board of education voted to end its mask mandate, but approved a policy for a two-week mask requirement if a school building has a 4% or higher positivity rate or an absenteeism rate of staff and students out with multiple symptoms.

When asked if the attorney general would take legal action against school districts for enforcing any type of mask mandate, no matter the circumstances regarding the number of teachers and students absent due to COVID, Nuelle referred to Schmitt’s statement in December regarding the Cole County Circuit Court decision nullifying all COVID-related public health orders.

“Now that the ruling is final, non-compliant school districts and local public health authorities should rescind public health orders covered under the ruling or face litigation from the Attorney General’s office,” Schmitt stated on Dec. 23. “We plan to begin enforcement action on non-compliant entities as soon as January.”

On Dec. 28, St. Louis and Jackson Counties appealed the circuit court decision to the Missouri Court of Appeals’ Western District, located in Kansas City.

If public schools are closed due to illnesses and quarantines, the duration of remote instruction will be limited, according to a spokesperson with Missouri’s Department of Elementary and Secondary Education (DESE). At the pandemic’s start in 2020, an emergency provision allowed school districts to continue receiving state funding during periods of hybrid learning—online and in the classroom. The Missouri State Board of Education rescinded the rule on July 30, 2021. However, districts still have the option to use up to 36 hours of online or remote instruction. The legislation was passed before the pandemic and allows remote learning during unforeseen events or emergency situations.

“The Department of Elementary and Secondary Education continues to monitor the pandemic-related challenges (school districts) are facing, including staff absence concerns,” Mallory McGowin, chief communications officer for DESE, said in an email to The Center Square. “At this time, there have been less than two dozen school closures during the 2021-22 school year, taking place in smaller, rural districts for short periods of time.”

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