Mehlville makes masking mandatory

An+Oakville+High+School+student+sews+during+class+as+students+returned+for+two+weeks+in+October-November+2020%2C+before+the+announcement+that+they+would+return+to+all-virtual+learning+until+January+2021.+

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.

By Erin Achenbach, News Editor

Face masks are now required inside all Mehlville School District facilities and transporation for all students, staff and visitors regardless of vaccination status. 

The Mehlville Board of Education unanimously voted last week to pass a resolution that requires face coverings inside all Mehlville schools for everyone until further notice, after holding two special meetings to discuss COVID-19 mitigation before school starts Aug. 25. 

The board called two special virtual meetings for Aug. 3 and Aug. 5, with the former meeting entirely dedicated to public comment, while the latter meeting was primarily for discussion. 

The vote to require masks comes almost one year exactly from when the board voted to begin the 2020-2021 school year with all students entirely virtual. 

“On Aug. 5, 2020, the Board of Education met to review data, guidance, considerations and recommendations before making the decision to start the last school year virtually. A year later, we are reviewing similar information,” said Superintendent Chris Gaines. “Throughout the pandemic, we have looked at guidance from the (Centers for Disease Control), state health and county health. … We have seen cases increase, decrease and hold steady. More recently, we’re seeing marked increase.” 

In May, the CDC issued guidance that vaccinated individuals no longer had to wear masks. However, the CDC changed that guidance just last month in light of climbing cases of the Delta variant, and now recommends everyone mask up again in indoor places in areas of high transmission regardless of vaccination status, including all of Missouri.

“If we look at data in the lead up to how we opened last year and compare to where we are this year, we can see that the positivity rate is higher this year than last. The CDC case rate is very much in line with where we were last year,” Gaines said. “In order to start open and stay open, (The St. Louis County Education) Task Force recommends universal masking indoors at schools.” 

The special meetings drew several public comments, with the Aug. 3 meeting dedicated to a little over an hour of strictly public comment on the issue. 

“One of the things I think is really important about this is parent choice and something that I’m hearing over and over again is ‘my side, your side’ … parent choice is everyone’s side. It’s that my rights as a parent don’t end at the classroom door,” said Kate Brockmeyer. “If your child is vaccinated and masked and it works as you so heavily believe it does, or you’re just masking your child, your child is safe. … Based on the fear of other parents, we are sacrificing their (students’) ability to connect and build relationships.”  

Other speakers said that masking requirements should be based on data and vaccination status of individual students. 

“It is getting really frustrating to see so many people mistake opinion for expertise as they complain about changing measures as the data and the actual virus changes. I wish to see mask requirements for the start of this school year for everyone in elementary or middle school,” said Jeremy Grojean. “Vaccinated high schoolers should have a choice. Unfortunately, those opposed to masks and vaccines cannot be relied upon to be forthright about their vaccination status. We already require proof for various health measures and this one should be no different.” 

According to data presented from Gaines, 14 to 15 percent of cases pre-vaccines in Mehlville’s zipcodes –– 63128, 63129 and 63125 –– could be attributed to youth ages 0 to 19. Since mid-March 2021, youth account for nearly 23 percent of cases in those zip codes and account for 24.9 percent of reported cases in the last two reporting cycles prior to the board meeting. 

“Regardless of the data lens, we see a similar shape emerge. … Over the summer, we have seen positivity rates go down from less than five percent to coincidentally over 10 percent since July 19. The transmission rate was below one during late April, all of May and into early June,” said Gaines. “It went above one on June 12 and has remained so since.” 

Gaines told the board that district administration had considered several different scenarios for the upcoming school year, including making masks optional, requiring masks, or attempting some sort of combination of masked and unmasked classrooms or masked and unmasked schools. 

“The option a lot of people ask about is having some classrooms masked and some unmasked. And we’ve really looked at that possibility. … High school schedules and staffing don’t really allow for mirrored classes to happen at the same time. Some classes only have one section and barely fit into a schedule. Logistically it doesn’t work,” Gaines said. “This goal of keeping kids in school as much as possible means we have to look at mitigation strategies. As we take strategies away, the chance of transmission increases.” 

The resolution passed by the board states the mask requirement for middle and high school students will remain in place until the CDC community metric for moderate transmission –– 10 to 49 cases per 100,000 ––  is met for three consecutive days in the combined zip codes of 63125, 63128 and 63129. 

The masking requirement for sixth grade and younger will remain in place until the low community transmission –– zero to nine cases per 100,000 –– threshold is met. 

 “This isn’t normal. We don’t want it to be normal. I’m not considering it normal, I’m not considering it permanent. This is abnormal because we’re in a pandemic and we’re doing everything we can to educate students and that is the most important part,” said Board Director Tori Behlke.