Schools continue masking through end of January

Case rates keeping schools from going mask-optional

Schools+continue+masking+through+end+of+January

By Erin Achenbach and Lucas Irizarry

Both Lindbergh Schools and the Mehlville School District will continue universal masking through the end of the month in response to the community COVID positivity rate. 

Both districts had planned to move to masks optional in schools beginning Jan. 18 – the start of the second semester – but current case rates have pushed back that date to move to mask-recommended to at least the end of January. 

Both the Mehlville Board of Education and Lindbergh Board of Education voted in December to move to a mask-optional policy when students returned from winter break the first week of January. However, due to case rates, both districts pushed back the date to make masks optional to the end of the first semester Jan. 17, before pushing that date back once more. 

“You can see things were starting to go up around Thanksgiving and then really took off after Christmas. … Our internal dashboard last week saw the highest number of cases (among staff) we’ve ever seen over the course of the pandemic,” Mehlville Superintendent Chris Gaines said at a board meeting Jan. 20. “You can see the massive increase among our students since we’ve come back from break.” 

Under the mask-optional policies adopted by both Lindbergh and Mehlville in December, individual buildings must mask if the percentage of positive cases in that building is above a certain threshold. In Mehlville, that threshold is 1 percent, while Lindbergh’s is 1.5. If the number of positive cases in a building remains above the threshold after masking for 10 days, a building will continue to mask for an additional five days. 

In a Jan. 19 letter to parents, Lindbergh Superintendent Tony Lake said that all buildings in the district had been above the 1.5 percent threshold the previous week, meaning that all buildings will require universal masking through Feb. 2, when data will be reviewed again to see what buildings, if any, can move to a mask-optional environment. 

In Mehlville, all of the district’s buildings are above the 1-percent threshold and will be masking until at least Jan. 31.  

Both Lake and Gaines said that the level of cases has made staffing difficult and that across the state, over 40 districts have had to do some level of temporary closures due to staffing difficulties.

Lindbergh Chief Human Resources Officer Brian McKenney said the impact of the Omicron variant has caused staff to cover other positions when needed, but community and school rates are trending in the right direction. The St. Louis County COVID website shows that the positivity rate peaked Jan. 6 and has been slowly trending downward since.

“We believe that we are getting closer and closer to approaching to where we’re going to have different masking statuses by building,” Gaines said. “We will look at the cases on Jan. 31 … if anybody’s above that 1-percent threshold, they would be masking for another five days.” 

Under the mask-optional plan in Mehlville, employees are required to mask regardless of that building’s masking status. There was some discussion at the Jan. 20 whether or not to allow employees to go mask optional once their building does, but any action was tabled until the board’s next meeting in February after Jan. 31. 

“Our goal is to keep as many employees working as possible. … Depending on how case counts go, I can see us recommending us taking that out … depending on where our case count is” Gaines said of the masking requirement for employees. “And really depending on how we can staff and how we are running relative to staffing. … It’s every day whether or not we have enough people.”