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School districts reverse course and keep mask requirements amid COVID surge

2020_Filephoto_RyanDelaney_masks_at_school_bus.jpg
Ryan Delaney
/
St. Louis Public Radio
Students arrive at Hancock Place Elementary in September 2020. The district is delaying plans to make masks optional in schools because of high cases of COVID-19.

Multiple local school districts had planned to make masks optional in schools beginning Tuesday, but the omicron variant’s fast spread caused many to reverse course.

The districts that were planning to relax their mask policies included Lindbergh, Rockwood, Francis Howell, Kirkwood, Parkway, Mehlville, Hancock Place and Pattonville. Each of those districts has pushed back the date they plan to move to mask-recommended.

In the Francis Howell School District, masks were optional for a few days when students came back from winter break, but on Jan. 10th the district required masks once again.

At the Rockwood School District’s Dec. 16 school board meeting, attendees booed and cheered as the board discussed changing its mask policy. The board decided to move to recommending masks starting on Jan. 18th, but last week, it once again pushed back plans to make masks optional.

Rockwood has seen a huge rise in cases in the last three weeks, said interim Superintendent Tim Ricker.

“As we started to see those numbers come up, we came back on the 3rd, our administrative team had already had a conversation,” Ricker said. “At that point in time, it was evident that we needed to look at some more mitigation or an extension of the mask required portion of our mitigation strategies.”

The district maintains a COVID-19 dashboard with lines showing the 2% and 4% positivity thresholds. If cases and close contacts are above 4%, the district will require masks for two weeks. Ricker said the soonest masks could become optional again would be Feb. 3.

Rockwood recorded its highest number of students and staff out of school on Monday, Jan. 10, but according to data from Friday afternoon, cases in the district were slightly below the 4% level.

Most other districts have similar thresholds for positive cases in schools. Those range from 1% in Mehlville to 4% in Rockwood.

In a letter to parents on Friday, Mehlville’s Superintendent Chris Gaines said more than 400 cases of COVID-19 were reported last week among students and staff, and each school in the district was above its 1% threshold of cases. The district will require masks until at least Jan. 31.

“Since we’ve been back from break, we have seen an exceptional number of absences among our staff and students due to COVID-19 and other illnesses,” Gaines said. “This continues to create a strain on our district that has been felt by all of our employees.”

The Parkway School District also set Tuesday as a target date for relaxing mask requirements, but it pushed the date back one month to Feb. 18. After that date, if more than 2% of students at a school test positive, they will be required to wear masks for two weeks. More than two-thirds of all cases reported this year in the district were reported in the last two weeks, according to the district’s health dashboard.

The soonest Hancock Place could move to mask-optional would be Feb. 14, according to Superintendent Kevin Carl.

“Of course if the positivity would drop significantly, we could consider moving to mask optional earlier,” Carl said via email. “It's a very fluid situation.”

Follow Kate on Twitter: @KGrumke

Kate Grumke covers higher education and the many school districts in the region for St. Louis Public Radio.

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