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Missouri changes school quarantine guidance as long as masks are worn

The state said close contacts no longer have to quarantine after being exposed to a COVID-19 case in Missouri schools as long as both parties were wearing a mask

JEFFERSON CITY, Mo. — State leaders in Missouri have announced a major guidance change that could keep more students in the classroom and not home in quarantine. But at least one local health department said it has no plans to adopt the guidance.

The new guidance redefines what should happen when there are COVID-19 cases in schools.

As long as both the person diagnosed with COVID-19 and the person exposed to that positive case were properly wearing masks, the individual who was exposed does not have to quarantine.

Governor Mike Parson said this change will decrease the number of close contact cases in K-12 schools throughout the state, while also encouraging more schools to implement a mask mandate.

“We have been working hard with DESE and DHSS to find a solution that allows us to continue providing the high-quality education our students deserve while still keeping them, our teachers, and all school staff members safe,” Gov. Parson said Thursday.

The state’s updated guidance deviates from the CDC’s guidance. The CDC’s website states close contacts (anyone who was within 6 feet for a total of 15 minutes with the COVID-19-positive person) should quarantine at home for 14 days after the last exposure – and that it doesn’t matter whether either person was wearing a mask.

“This is irrespective of whether the person with COVID-19 or the contact was wearing a mask or whether the contact was wearing respiratory personal protective equipment (PPE),” the CDC’s guidance states.

READ ALSO: These are the Missouri school district boundaries with the most COVID-19 cases

Missouri’s new guidance still states those who were exposed – but no longer have to quarantine – should still monitor for symptoms and stay home at the first sign of illness. The person who tests positive for COVID-19 must still isolate at home.

“Our teachers and school leaders have worked tirelessly to meet the needs of our students throughout the first quarter, but the current structure is not sustainable long-term,” Commissioner of Education Margie Vandeven said. “Students and their families struggle to keep up with coursework in a distanced model of instruction when students are temporarily quarantined, and many districts have been forced to suspend in-person learning opportunities after large numbers of school staff members were directed to quarantine.”

However, the St. Louis County health department said Thursday afternoon it has no intention of adopting the state’s new guidance at this time.

“Now is not the time to weaken our quarantine policies here in St. Louis County. Doing so would reduce the effectiveness of one of the most powerful tools we have to prevent spread,” the county said in an emailed statement to 5 On Your Side.

St. Louis County health officials noted how the state’s changes contradict CDC guidance and that the county has seen “significant transmissions” of COVID-19 among teachers and students.

“For these reasons, we have no final decision on adopting the state's recommendations and will continue to use our data to protect this community. That will remain our priority. … But there are no changes to St. Louis County guidance at this moment,” the statement concludes.

You can watch the full announcement from Gov. Parson and state officials in the video player below:

As of Thursday morning, the Missouri Department of Health and Senior Services is reporting a total of 225,371 confirmed COVID-19 cases and 3,339 deaths. The state's positivity rate is 22.4% over the last seven days.

The changes at the statewide level for K-12 schools come at a time when leaders in St. Louis and St. Louis County are considering tighter restrictions for all residents.

Several schools in the St. Louis area also are reverting back to virtual learning.

The full guidance is available on the Missouri Department of Elementary and Secondary Education website.