Mehlville, Lindbergh move away from mandatory masking

South County schools look at making masks optional

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By Erin Achenbach, News Editor

Both the Mehlville School District and Lindbergh Schools announced last week that they would be switching to mask-recommended policies in the upcoming months, moving away from the current requirement that all students, staff and visitors wear face coverings in school facilities, regardless of vaccination status. 

At a special meeting Dec. 9, the Mehlville Board of Education unanimously voted to move to a mask-recommended policy beginning Dec. 23 for high school students. Masks will still required be in early childhood, elementary and middle school buildings through Jan. 17. 

The decision to revise Mehlville’s COVID-19 policy comes on the heels of a recent Cole County court case, where a judge ruled that health orders issued by local health authorities are “null and void.” Attorney General Eric Schmitt also sent a letter to school districts the first week of December instructing districts to cease any mask mandates, quarantining and other mitigation strategies based on the Cole County judge’s ruling. 

Mehlville Superintendent Chris Gaines told the board Dec. 9 that school lawyers across the state had advised that the Cole County ruling, although confusing, does not apply to health orders put into place by a board of elected officials, including school boards. State statute also gives school districts the authority to implement health and safety rules, which school attorneys have said applies to things such as mask mandates. 

“This leads us to two considerations – Masking and quarantining. … We’ve been talking to our legal counsel quite a bit and after consultation, we believe that contact tracing will cease on Dec. 23 after the ruling is final. That means that exclusion from school of close contacts will end. At that point, we’ll really focus in on our communicable disease and staff health and safety policies,” Gaines said. “Statute and policy allow us to exclude positive cases from our premises and in-person learning. The same is true for symptomatic individuals.” 

Gaines said that there would no longer be notifications for close contacts but only that there was a positive case in a student’s classroom, adding that the district’s mask mandate was also no longer applicable given that quarantining of close contacts would be ending. 

“Given the end to quarantine on Dec. 23, our mask mandate no longer allows us to keep more students in school. While we believe the ruling doesn’t impact a locally-elected board of education’s ability to establish mitigation protocols and we don’t like the virus trends we see in the community, our rationale for masking at the start of the year no longer holds,” Gaines said. “(The judge’s ruling) has inhibited our ability to keep students and employees safe from transmission. More time to reach fully vaccinated status, adjustment in virtual learning and disruption in finals, all lead us to recommend to move to a mask-recommended status effective Jan. 17. 

Masks would still be required on all school buses due to a federal mandate.

The resolution approved by the board also includes thresholds that outline when mandated masking would be implemented on a per-building basis. Masks would be required for at least 10 days in buildings where positive cases over the course of any week exceed 1 percent of the building population of students and adults. If the number of positive cases in the building remains at 1 percent after 10 days, the building will continue masking for an additional five days, with cases being monitored every five days to see when a building could move back to mask-recommended status.

Lindbergh Schools will also be making changes to its COVID-19 policies. In a letter sent to parents Dec. 10, Lindbergh Superintendent Tony Lake stated that masks would be required for all students, staff and visitors regardless of vaccination status through winter break. Masks will then be optional for students and staff after Jan. 5. 

The procedure to allow the district to transition to mask-optional will be added to Lindbergh’s Green Light Plan which will be voted on by the Board of Education Dec. 16.

Like Mehlville, Lindbergh also has metrics for re-implementing mandatory masking on a per building basis.

Masks would be required for at least two weeks in buildings where positive cases over the course of any week exceed 1.5 percent of the building population of students and adults. This weekly percentage will be calculated based on in-school exposures only but COVID-19 data from the surrounding community will also be considered.

To resume mask-optional status, a school’s weekly percentage of positive cases who have in-school exposure must be less than 1.5 percent after the two-week period. Data will be reviewed on a weekly basis. 

Early childhood education students and staff will continue to wear face coverings at school until children younger than 5 are eligible to be vaccinated.

Lindbergh Chief Communications Officer Beth Johnston said in an email that the district’s transition to a mask-optional learning environment has been in the works since early November, and is not related to the attorney general’s letter or the Cole County court ruling. 

Another South County school district, Hancock Place, has also announced that it will be transitioning to mask-optional. All students and staff will remain masked at Hancock until Jan. 18, when the district will then move to mask-optional.

A mask-optional environment will only be permitted when the school-based positivity rate remains less than 5 percent. If the percentage of positive cases who have had in-school exposure is greater than 4 percent of a school’s total enrollment, masks will be required for at least two weeks. To resume mask-optional status, that rate must be equal or less than 2 percent. 

The Affton Board of Education took a different approach from its South County counterparts. On Dec. 7, the board voted to continue with the district’s current COVID-19 mitigation strategies, including continued universal masking. Affton’s Return to Learn Task Force will convene in the coming weeks to discuss any changes in mitigation strategies, including the metrics for a mask optional environment.