HIGH RIDGE — Summer school at Brennan Woods Elementary is a flashback to 2019. Students gather on the rugs, cluster around the tables, play tag at recess. Nobody wears a mask.
“The last two weeks have felt different,” said Northwest School District Superintendent Desi Kirchhofer. “When you’re in an emergency, you’re just responding. Now we can breathe and debrief.”
There are no active cases of COVID-19 among students or staff in the Jefferson County district. The school board voted last month to make masks optional for students and staff, regardless of vaccination status, starting with the last two days of the school year and through the summer session. Unless the public health trends change, the policy will stay in place this fall.
Last summer, the debate in education was over reopening. Some parents protested to return to buildings, and others pushed to stay virtual. In the end, nearly every district in the region started the school year online.
The fight this school year could hinge on masks, as virus numbers plummet but children under age 12 aren’t yet eligible for vaccines. Most districts in the region have not made a decision about mask mandates for the fall.
Rockwood School District in St. Louis County has also dropped its mask mandate for summer school, only requiring them on school buses. Other large districts like Parkway, Francis Howell and Wentzville still require masks in classrooms.
Last month, the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention said it was safe for fully vaccinated people to go without masks in most situations. Local governments including St. Louis and St. Louis County dropped their mask mandates. That led to some backlash from parents who said the shift came too soon, before most kids have the chance to get vaccinated.
Vaccines for elementary-age kids are unlikely to gain approval before the first day of school in August, and could come as late as first quarter 2022.
Meanwhile, cases of the virus nationwide are nearing the lowest point since the pandemic started in March 2020. Kids are generally, but not always, at low risk of severe disease. And schools did not prove to be super-spreading sites, with few outbreaks or building shutdowns recorded all year.
“We haven’t seen the spread of COVID in our schools,” Kirchhofer said. “The biggest problem was quarantines. We quarantined hundreds and hundreds of healthy kids for 10 to 14 days (after a possible exposure).”
Blocking colds and flu
The widespread use of rapid coronavirus tests in schools would be more useful this fall than masks to prevent unnecessary quarantines, according to a recent column by Harvard University medical professors. The professors also prioritize improved ventilation systems over masks.
On the flip side, wearing masks likely played a role in blocking transmission of the virus in schools. Epidemiologists also believe that masking kids contributed to a historically mild cold and flu season.
Some parents believe keeping mask mandates in place at least for the fall semester is a small price for protecting unvaccinated kids. Plus, giving up that layer of protection can feel unsettling after 15 months of following the rules.
“We’ve come too far for my kids to get COVID now,” said Alyssa Patel, who hopes the mask mandate in St. Louis Public Schools stays in place until younger kids can get vaccinated. “Everyone is pretty much fine with wearing the masks if you make it a normal thing, if you model it like it’s no big deal.”
‘Just giving them a chance to be vaccinated first would be nice,’ said Jenny Berla, 38, of Olivette, who has an 8-year-old and 5-year-old twins.
But other parents say masks have not been totally benign for their children, and they are frustrated with the ongoing mandates.
“We’re not against masks,” said Jacqueline Kutz, whose daughter fainted while wearing a mask. “Each parent should be able to decide that for their own child.”
Joanna Fiehler said her daughter is hard of hearing and has had trouble understanding teachers and classmates at Parkway West High School this year. Children have sacrificed enough for the benefit of more vulnerable populations who can now get vaccinated, she said.
Kutz and Fiehler are part of the group Parkway Parents for Students First, which launched to advocate for full-time in-person school and has shifted in part to push for a mask-optional policy in the district.
“There is simply NO justification for continuing to require any Parkway student to wear a mask on campus or while attending a school function,” reads a letter sent Friday from more than 200 parents in the group to Parkway Superintendent Keith Marty and the school board.
The west St. Louis County district has not indicated when it will make a decision about masks for the fall.
At Brennan Woods Elementary in High Ridge, teachers and administrators said they’re relieved that students now have the choice to take off their masks.
“I love seeing their faces. I love seeing their smiles,” said third grade teacher Jenny Wright. “It’s so much more fun that way. That’s what I missed the most.”