Disputes over masks in schools have flared in Jefferson and St. Charles counties, where most students will not be required to wear face coverings — in conflict with federal and local health guidelines.
“There’s a lot of anxiety about sending kids into classrooms,” said Amberly Keach, whose two children attend schools in the Fox district in Arnold, which has a mask-optional policy.
“If we are going to accomplish having all students in person long-term, we have to respect the mitigation measures that will keep our children safe in that environment and allow them to continue to stay in school,” Keach wrote in a recent letter to Superintendent Paul Fregeau and the Fox School Board.
The Jefferson County Health Department “recommends all schools require universal indoor masking by all students (age 2 and older), staff, teachers, and visitors to K-12 schools, regardless of vaccination status,” according to an update issued Wednesday by Executive Director Kelley Vollmar.
There were 267 cases of COVID-19 among children in the county in July, compared with 59 cases in June.
Fregeau said the Fox back-to-school plan, announced Aug. 6, could be revised after a review of the updated guidance. The Fox plan recommends masks for all students and staff but says “each family and staff member may choose to wear a mask or not based on their personal preference.”
As school districts prepare to welcome students back in person next week and cases of COVID-19 continue to rise, mask policies have become a flashpoint. Parents on both sides of the debate are threatening to keep their kids out of class if their district’s mask policy doesn’t change.
All districts in St. Louis city and county will require masks for students and staff this fall, regardless of vaccination status. Illinois schools are under an order from Gov. J.B. Pritzker to require masks in schools and day care centers.
Parents who oppose the mandates say masking is a medical decision that should be left up to families. A letter sent to Parkway School District leaders last week from the group Parkway Parents for Students First included 14 demands for public records and explanations of the district’s mask requirement.
Wearing a mask “interferes with their social learning, distorts verbal speech, and removes visual cues for the hard of hearing. Face covering policies not only inhibit peer-to-peer learning but also pose social and emotional distress to children,” reads a similar letter from parents in the Rockwood School District, also in west St. Louis County.
Parents in favor of mask requirements say children younger than 12, who are not eligible for vaccines, are particularly vulnerable to catching the delta variant of the virus. They point to calls from the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, the American Academy of Pediatrics and other medical groups for universal masking in schools.
The Missouri pediatricians’ chapter sent an alert on Tuesday to urge all schools in the state to require masks indoors.
“Children can, in fact, get COVID-19; they do get sick, and more of them are being hospitalized for treatment. Implementing mitigation strategies such as masking, vaccination, testing and proper cleaning is key to keeping our school communities safe,” said Dr. Kristin Sohl, president of the group and a Columbia pediatrician, in a statement.
Maria Walls said her 8-year-old son never had to quarantine last year when masks were required in Fort Zumwalt School District in St. Charles County.
“They didn’t have stomach virus, strep, flu, any infectious viruses at all in his school,” said Walls, a nurse practitioner at Missouri Baptist Medical Center. “That proves right there that masks did work last year.”
Dr. Jason Newland of Washington University said school leaders are in a better place this August compared with last year, when most districts in the region started school online. But mask mandates play a key role in preventing the spread of the virus, he said.
“We now know how to have school during a pandemic, even during surges,” said Newland, who specializes in infectious disease at St. Louis Children’s Hospital. “We learned that if you do the mitigation strategies that include masking, some distance, keeping children and staff out if they’re sick — transmission in schools is rare.”
Newland said he would send his kids to a mask-optional school this fall, wearing masks.
“There’s no doubt they’re still protected,” he said. “They’re more protected if everyone around them is wearing a mask, but wearing a mask will provide you protection.”
About 20 parents and students protested Friday in favor of mask mandates at the “Parents for Safe Schools” rally at the St. Charles County Health Department.
The virus is surging in the county, where cases among ages 5 to 19 jumped to 379 in July from 71 in June.
Last year, there were 348 cases in the age group in July 2020, as most schools in St. Charles decided to open under mask mandates.
The county health department’s guidance recommending universal mask mandates in schools has not been updated since November, but school districts including Wentzville and Fort Zumwalt will be mask-optional this fall.
The City of St. Charles School District is an outlier, requiring universal masking for all students and staff. Francis Howell School District changed course on Thursday, making masks mandatory for preschool through sixth grades at least through Sept. 17, when the policy will be reevaluated.