Four Missouri School Districts Agree to Let Students Skip COVID Quarantine, Return to Classes, Sports

Administrators at four school districts in Missouri agreed to let their students skip quarantine and return to their classrooms and sports even if they have been in contact with someone who has knowingly tested positive for COVID-19.

The Diamond, East Newton, Neosho and Seneca school districts announced last week that exposed students would no longer be required to quarantine and could return to in-person learning, The Kansas City Star reported. The reversal in course was prompted by the Newton County Health Department, which announced September 15 that students could be allowed inside school buildings despite their exposure.

Each of the four districts are located inside Newtown County, near Joplin in southeastern Missouri. District superintendents worked with officials at the county's health department to draft guidance which says students who have been in contact with someone who has tested positive for coronavirus can "continue to attend school and school activities," as long as they wear a mask and social distance, The Star reported. These students would be closely monitored for virus symptoms, the guidelines state.

Larry Bergner, administrator of the county's health department, told The Star he issued the guidance because too many children were missing school to quarantine.

"We were quarantining between 25 and 31 students for every one positive case," he said on Monday. "You don't have to get too many positive cases before you have most of the student body on quarantine."

Bergner worried about potential mental health effects as a result of being kept at home and about a lack of food in some students' homes. The Diamond R-IV School District had so many students out of school at one point that "they had to shut down for a while," he told The Star.

It was "worth trying" to treat students like essential employees, Bergner said. "If they start to show symptoms then they go home. But we were sending a lot of kids home and they were not sick. Why let them fall behind in their education?"

So far, just one of the districts has announced it would stop following the health department's guidelines and will go back to telling exposed students to quarantine for at least two weeks if they are within six feet of a positive case for at least 15 minutes, The Star reported.

The Neosho School District (NSD) alerted parents of the change in a notice Monday. Superintendent Jim Cummins originally agreed to the county's new guidance because as of Friday, his district had nine active coronavirus cases, but 191 students were quarantined.

The district found that some students who were told to quarantine are not actually doing so, and that "students who test positive are sometimes being harassed, because their positive test sent other students home," according to the notice. Additionally, county health officials alerted Cummins to an increase in domestic abuse complaints.

But the district's efforts to see if this new model could work without having a spike in positive coronavirus cases "became a political issue," the notice states, with members of the medical community supporting both sides of the matter.

Ultimately, NSD "has a great deal of momentum at this time with many positives occurring throughout the district. Now is not the time to bring unwanted attention upon the district," the notice states.

Beginning Tuesday—one week after initially saying it would follow the county's new guidelines—NSD announced its contact tracing team will return to sending close contacts home for quarantine. The notice alludes to the fact that local health officials and political leaders will continue to review the "costs/benefits of the current policies."

"As of a week ago, in Missouri, there had been no deaths from Covid-19 in 0-17 year olds," the NSD notice states. "However, we cannot measure the impact of the social pressure, emotional stress, nutritional void, educational loss, and other impacts this virus is having on our students when they are quarantined, or have to decide whether or not to get tested."

The Diamond, Seneca and East Newton districts are continuing to follow the county's new guidelines, keeping potentially exposed students in the classroom. The East Newton School District declined to comment to Newsweek at this time. Newsweek contacted the two other districts for comment, but did not hear back in time for publication.

Connecticut teacher
Fourth grade teacher Maureen Calorossi conducts a math and science class at Stark Elementary School on September 16, 2020 in Stamford, Connecticut. On September 15, administrators at four school districts in Missouri agreed to let their students skip quarantine and return to their classrooms and sports even if they have been in contact with someone who has knowingly tested positive for COVID-19. John Moore/Getty

The Newton County Health Department's guidance goes against both national and statewide pandemic safety protocols, The Star reported. In its plan for reopening schools, the Missouri Department of Health and Senior Services suggested students and teachers should keep six feet away from one another, wear masks and quarantine if they come in close contact with a positive COVID-19 case.

In its school reopening guidelines, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention recommend that if a "student, teacher, or staff member tests positive for SARS-CoV-2, those in close contact should follow CDC quarantine guidance." The guidance states that anyone within 6 feet of someone who has COVID-19 for a total of 15 minutes or more should stay home for 14 days after the last period of contact and monitor symptoms.

According to each of the four school districts' reopening plans, NSD is the only one to have a mask mandate for students and staff members while at school.

"Staff will be required to wear a cloth mask or plastic face shield during most of the school day, especially when physical distancing is difficult," the plan states. "Students will also be required to wear a cloth mask when social distancing guidelines cannot be maintained, or special circumstances exist."

The other three districts highly recommend that students wear face coverings whenever social distancing is not possible, but it is not a requirement. All four districts are offering in-person instruction for the school year, but have virtual options as well.

As of September 21, Newton County reported 1,443 total coronavirus cases and 22 fatalities. The state of Missouri has reported 115,366 total cases and 1,864 deaths, according to its health department.

Update (09/22/20, 4:55 p.m.): This article has been updated to include a response from the East Newton School District.

Four Missouri School Districts Agree to Let Students Skip COVID Quarantine, Return to Classes, Sports | News