KANSAS CITY, Mo. — The Missouri Department of Elementary and Secondary Education, along with the Missouri Department of Health and Senior Services, released guidance for schools Thursday on topics including screening, physical distancing and face coverings.
As the beginning of the fall semester approaches, many districts are preparing to bring students back in some capacity.
Missouri Gov. Mike Parson said parents and schools should understand COVID-19 will be present.
“That virus will be in the schools. I don’t think there’s any reason for us not to think it’s going to be there …,” Parson said at a Thursday press conference. “When school starts, somebody in there is going to have that virus, and it’s going to be here until we find a vaccine or we find another solution how to deal with it.”
The DESE guidelines may evolve as more is learned about the virus, the department said, but Thursday’s document provided a jumping-off point.
DESE advised schools to ask parents or caregivers to screen their students for symptoms before coming to school.
Students who exhibit COVID-19 symptoms should stay home, as should students with close contact to an adult who has COVID-19 symptoms.
DESE asked schools to stress the importance of keeping sick children home.
For at-school screenings, DESE recommends students be visually checked for signs of illness.
While school leaders may choose to have additional screening measures, such as taking students’ temperatures, DESE said they should be sure the procedures don’t create a bottleneck at entrances, which would make physical distancing difficult.
School staff members are also encouraged to screen themselves at home and given adults’ higher likelihood of transmitting the virus, schools are also advised to screen them upon entry each day.
Missouri Department of Health and Senior Services Director Dr. Randall Williams said the state is focused on teachers because transmission most often happens from staff to students.
“If we can do that, I think we’ll be fine with the children,” Williams said at a Thursday press conference.
DESE said schools should limit outside visitors and conduct meetings virtually when possible.
The department said physical distancing of 6 feet will help schools limit the number of students and staff who have to quarantine in the case they encounter someone with COVID-19.
DESE recommends schools assign students to “cohorts,” so they are moving with the same group of people throughout the day rather than rotating.
If rotation is necessary, DESE said it would be better for teachers to move locations instead of students.
Since cohorting may not be possible in middle and high schools, DESE said assigned seating is important. Schools should keep a record of seating charts to help with contact tracing if someone tests positive.
Other physical distancing efforts should include the following, DESE said:
- Limit mixing of cohorts as much as possible.
- Space students out as much as possible. When 6 feet is not possible, 3 feet minimum of space is acceptable.
- Desks should be positioned so students do not sit face-to-face.
- Place markers and cues throughout the building so students are reminded to remain 6 feet apart when not in a stationary location.
- Enforce hand hygiene before and after students change locations in the building.
Similar recommendations are made for bus rides.
DESE advises school leaders to “consider leveraging space in innovative ways,” and use larger or outdoor spaces to ensure physical distancing is maintained.
For meal times, DESE recommended students remain in their cohorts and eat in their classrooms when possible. Older students may eat at a safe physical distance outdoors or in larger spaces such as gymnasiums.
Recess and physical education classes, which are important to students’ physical and mental health, can still take place with some precautions, DESE said.
The department again recommended students stay in their cohorts for such activities. If equipment is used by more than one cohort at separate times, it should be disinfected, especially in high-touch areas.
DESE said given the higher risk of transmission during music classes, students should stay in their cohorts and maintain physical distance. The classes could also be held outdoors or virtually, the department said.
Though face coverings are proven to reduce the spread of COVID-19, DESE does not recommend continuous mask usage for younger students, citing heightened risks for “increased face touching, mask chewing, mask trading” and other actions that may spread the virus.
However, given middle and high school students will likely be able to follow mask guidelines and their class structure doesn’t lend itself to cohorting, the department says face coverings “can provide an additional layer of protection.”
Masks should be worn by all age groups when students are not cohorted or are in locations in which they cannot physically distance themselves from others.
Face masks are also encouraged for students riding the bus. Drivers and monitors, DESE said, should wear a face covering.
Again citing a higher likelihood of adults transmitting the COVID-19 virus, DESE recommends schools require staff members to wear masks at all times when around students or other staffers.
There are some exceptions to the recommendation, including if a teacher is lecturing in a stationary position physically distanced from students.
While school will undoubtedly look different in the fall, state leaders seem to agree it is important for students to return.
“We agree with the American Academy of Pediatrics that school is very important for children,” Williams said.
Parson said school fills key socioeconomic gaps for students too, especially for those living in poverty or with food insecurity.
Parson also noted that with schools closed, there’s been a 60 percent decline in calls to child abuse hotlines.