Mehlville parents criticize continued masking at board meeting

Parents object to continued masks in school after CDC announcement

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By Erin Achenbach, Staff Reporter

Several parents spoke at the Mehlville Board of Education meeting last month against the district’s decision to continue requiring masks for students despite St. Louis County dropping its mask mandate for vaccinated people.

At the May 20 Board of Education meeting, over a dozen parents in the district questioned why masks were still required in schools.

“We’ve trusted the leadership of the Mehlville School District to lead our district through the pandemic. We’ve been patient and understanding … However, it has become clear that we cannot continue to provide that blanket trust and patience,” said Margaret Marino during public comment. “I’m not sure when, where and why it happened but it seems that the Mehlville School District board and administration quit focusing on the best interest of the children, which is your sole responsibility. I just can’t bring myself to believe that our elected leaders are completely ignoring these facts and realities but shame on you if you have been. … You do not have a responsibility or right to be making these types of health decisions for my children. My husband and I are the only ones authorized to decide whether or not my children wear a mask.”

The U.S. Centers for Disease Control, or CDC, said May 13 that people fully vaccinated against COVID-19 no longer have to wear masks either indoors or outdoors, and no longer have to socially distance. St. Louis County ended its mask mandate the next day for people who are vaccinated but continued to recommend that masks be worn in certain settings, like public transportation and schools, where many school-age children are not yet eligible to receive the vaccine.

People who are unvaccinated still have to wear a mask in all settings, indoor or outdoors, and still have the same airborne transmission risk of the coronavirus that has existed throughout the pandemic.

So far, Pfizer is the only COVID-19 vaccine approved for anyone 12 years of age and older. That age bracket was first eligible for the first dose of the vaccine just last month, while children older than 16 were eligible in April.

“This has unfortunately turned into a political game at the expense of our children, and they are suffering emotionally, socially, physically, mentally and academically. … The St. Louis Health Department has confirmed multiple times that their guidelines are not mandatory. … Your reasons to keep these mask mandates has been inconsistent,” said Kendra Nichols.

Nichols’ husband, Jason Nichols, asked the board “what did they fear” and said he feared that the district would “push a non-FDA (U.S. Food and Drug Administration)-approved trial drug on my kids if they want to be normal kids again.”

COVID-19 vaccines were given emergency authorization to use as vaccines, but they went through trials with many more participants than typical vaccine trials and have met all federal safety standards. At press time, 137 million Americans have been fully vaccinated with one of the three types of authorized vaccines.

During a COVID-19 update later that night, Superintendent Chris Gaines said that masks might come off for some students starting with summer school in June, when high school students who are fully vaccinated will not have to wear a mask.

Middle school students who are vaccinated won’t have to wear a mask starting in July. The district will not be verifying vaccination status, and masks will continue to be required for all grade levels on buses, regardless of vaccination status. Kindergarten through fifth grade will continue to mask during both summer school sessions.

The board, spearheaded by President Kevin Schartner, unanimously passed a motion that directed district staff  to create a protocol for students and parents to determine whether students will be required to wear a mask while attending school beginning with the July summer session based on the following metrics: The sum of the seven-day new case rates in the district’s primary ZIP codes is at nine cases per 100,000 people for three consecutive days, and St. Louis County’s positivity rate is 5 percent or lower.

The district would be able to reinstate temporary COVID mitigation strategies, including masks, as needed when cases occur in one of the district’s buildings.

“It gives me total confidence that moving forward our school will be able to put together solid plans that can flex, that will continue to pull data and be responsible without being reckless,” said board member Tori Behlke.