Public health officials urge St. Louis families to get school-aged kids vaccinated
School districts across the St. Louis region are sending back-to-school letters this week outlining how health guidelines are changing this year. Many are describing a more relaxed environment than students have navigated in previous pandemic years.
Along with those messages, some schools are encouraging families to get students vaccinated against COVID-19. Local public health officials say now is the time to make sure kids are protected against the coronavirus and other diseases.
This is the first school year that will start with all ages eligible for the COVID-19 vaccine. It’s too late for students to be fully vaccinated before school begins if they start the doses now, but even some immunity is important at this point, said Amanda Brzozowski, senior epidemiologist for the St. Louis County Department of Public Health.
“You should get your vaccines,” Brzozowski said. “If you're a little bit late, get them now. Get the process started, especially if it's something that might require more than one dose,” such as the COVID-19 vaccine.
So far, COVID-19 vaccination totals have been lower for younger age groups.
“If people are hesitant, they're on the fence, or they just need a little bit more knowledge, please reach out and talk to your pediatrician or look at the CDC’s website and you may be able to get some of the information that you're seeking,” Brzozowski said.
The majority of school districts in the region will have optional mask policies at the start of this year, and school leaders are hoping for a more normal start to class, said Paul Ziegler, CEO of Education Plus, a nonprofit that works with many of the school districts and charter schools in the region.
“We know COVID’s still present in our communities, we know we're still going to have some mitigation layers within our schools, but hopefully they won't be as onerous as what we've seen in the past,” Ziegler said.
One exception is the Maplewood Richmond Heights School District, which sent a letter to families this week saying masks will be required for the first two weeks of school because of the high level of community transmission in St. Louis County.
As of Thursday evening, in Illinois, the CDC said COVID-19 risk is high in Madison and St. Clair counties. In Missouri, it is medium in St. Louis and St. Louis County and low in St. Charles County. The CDC relaxed its COVID-19 guidelines for schools on Thursday, saying students no longer need to test to stay in class after being exposed to someone with the virus.
Schools are also doing away with other pandemic routines. The Parkway School District will no longer have a COVID-19 dashboard on its website reporting cases in schools and positivity rates. In a letter to families, Superintendent Keith Marty said that masks will no longer be required and that a building case threshold will not be used to reinstate mask requirements.
“We will now apply our standard communicable disease policy in response to COVID,” Marty said. “This means we will treat COVID cases similarly to other infectious diseases in school.”
During the pandemic, public health officials said there was a decrease in other vaccinations. Seven are required by the state to attend school. Parents should check with their pediatrician to make sure their child is on track for the different required vaccines, said Jenelle Leighton, clinical quality administrator with the St. Louis County Department of Public Health.
“Now is the time for everyone to recognize that immunizations are extremely important and to look at the vaccination schedule and what requirements are needed for the return to the school year,” Leighton said.
Schools are also starting to prepare to respond to monkeypox, though there have not been many cases recorded in the area. Education officials are using skills learned in the pandemic to be proactive, Ziegler said.
“We're much better equipped to make quick decisions on how to deal with the infectious disease than we were three years ago,” he said. “While there is no silver lining to a pandemic, certainly our understanding and our ability to to deal with a pandemic is much different.”
St. Louis Public Schools is planning to release information about monkeypox for families soon, along with other health information. The district plans to publish monkeypox information on its COVID-19 dashboard and will, as always, ask families to keep kids home from school if they are sick.
Nationally, the virus is mainly spreading through adult intimate contact. But anyone could contract monkeypox, as it is transmitted by skin-to-skin contact or contact with clothing or bedding that was used by a person who is infected.
“I think schools really need to be careful to make sure that if they do have cases in their students that those cases are not stigmatized,” Brzozowski said. “We need to protect the identities of patients and we need to make sure that there is no stigma attached to something like becoming infected with monkeypox.”
St. Louis County is coordinating distribution of the limited number of monkeypox vaccines available in the region.
Follow Kate on Twitter: @KGrumke