South St. Louis County News

St. Louis Call Newspapers

South St. Louis County News

St. Louis Call Newspapers

South St. Louis County News

St. Louis Call Newspapers

Mehlville Board of Education eliminates masking positivity threshold

Families will be notified of positive cases in classrooms
An Oakville High School student sews during class as students returned for two weeks in October-November 2020, before the announcement that they would return to all-virtual learning until January 2021.

The Mehlville Board of Education voted last week to eliminate the COVID-19 positivity threshold for masking in school buildings, starting the school year entirely mask-optional for the first time since 2019. The first day of school is Aug. 22. 

The board voted unanimously Aug. 4 to eliminate the threshold that triggered mandated masking in individual schools whenever that building’s positivity rate exceeded 1.5 percent. The updated resolution approved by the board eliminates the 1.5 percent masking threshold but states that the district will inform families whenever a building’s positivity rate exceeds 1.5 percent. The resolution also requires continued masking in student health service rooms at all schools whenever a student is present. 

“We can see what’s been happening in case data not only in the south region but in (the district’s) three zipcodes over the last month. The trend overall in not only the south region as a whole but in the three main zipcodes that we serve have all seen a declining number of cases,” Superintendent Chris Gaines said. “If we look at what’s been happening in terms of declining case rates … we look at vaccination rates … fully vaccinated is nearly 70 percent for those over the age of 5.”

According to Gaines, parents and guardians will be informed if there is a positive case in their student’s classroom, but that data will rely on people reporting their cases to the district as more people utilize at-home tests. 

“Two of the pieces that we’re going to watch a little more closely are student and staff attendance as we look at the start of the school year. We know that fewer and fewer people are getting tests through agencies and those getting reported, as more people just use at-home tests,” Gaines said. “We’re going to watch what’s happening with attendance as well as what’s happening with our case counts that people let us know about.” 

In the event “something was spiking or there was another variant that hits students or staff a little bit worse,” the Aug. 4 resolution still allows the board to hold  emergency meetings to put any needed mitigation measures in place, including a return to mandated masking. 

“Our ability to make that move exists,” Gaines said. “A majority of districts are certainly heading toward a mask-optional environment to start the school year with no thresholds.” 

“It sounds like we have a backup plan … if things really go completely off the charts when it comes to cases once we actually get back to school,” Director Jeff Wolman said. 

Board President Peggy Hassler questioned the original language around requiring continued masking in health rooms and nurses’ offices. The resolution first presented to the board required masking in health rooms and nurses’ offices at all times. 

“Do you feel that the nurses in our buildings, if they’re just in their offices working on paperwork or whatever? Do they need to be masked at those times,” Hassler questioned, suggesting that masks only be required in health rooms if a student was presenting respiratory symptoms. 

Director Scott Huegreich, who voted in the past to eliminate the masking threshold prior to the Aug. 4 meeting, suggested continuing to follow “societal norms” when it came to masking in nurses’ offices. 

“I think that going along with societal norms is a good thing and I can tell you that in every health care institution that I’ve been in, the physicians and nurses are always masking whenever there is a patient present,” Huegerich said. “I guess it’s a small sort of different take on this but I think following how healthcare institutions are doing this when a patient is being treated should be something to be considered.” 

Vice President Tori Behlke suggested adding in language that would continue to notify parents and families whenever their student’s building exceeded a certain positivity percentage so they could make a decision of whether or not to mask. 

“I know it’s mentioned as far as notifying if there is a case in a student’s classroom, that the family would be notified, but is that something to considered as far as the entire population over a certain percentage. Just as a notification of ‘Hey, just so you know, we’re here’ to let families know so that we can be as transparent as possible. 

Gaines said that idea was discussed among a number of districts, including Mehlville, and the conclusion the district came to is that the people who have been exposed are being told, and that level of micro communication was more desirable than broader communication. 

“Keep the noise to everyone at a minimum and just let people know when their child was exposed,’ Gaines said. 

Director Sarah Grace Wright argued that it was important for students who may be immunocompromised and want to mask to notify entire buildings if it exceeds a certain threshold. 

“I think the resolution is very well-thought out … but I do agree with Tori and Grace, for the families that are more sensitive and want to remain in masks more often, the more data we can provide them, the better that they will feel,” Huegrich said. “I do think it would be beneficial … I think if overall school count was still made available somehow … a certain amount of families would appreciate that.” 

Hassler suggested some kind of “opt-in” email or notification system for families who want to keep track of school data, and the overall consensus of the board was to notify parents and guardians when a building exceeds the 1.5 percent threshold. 

“I think that having that transparency to parents also gives them trust that we are making the right decisions for their children,” Wright said. 

“And that we’re monitoring it closely, which we are,” Hassler added.

The district had planned to no longer publicly publish its COVID-19 dashboard, which kept track of student and staff cases and quarantines during the course of the pandemic. Gaines said the district was planning to continue tracking the dashboard metrics internally and would be able to send out any kind of notification to families if it needed to if case counts spiked. 

“At this point, it appears that most districts are going to be dropping their dashboards,” Gaines said. 

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