KANSAS CITY, Mo. — The University of Missouri System currently does not plan to join other universities across the country that have delayed the start of their spring semesters or returned to online-only instruction because of the surge in COVID-19 cases.
Classes at the University of Missouri in Columbia start on Jan. 18, and spokesman Christian Basi said the school currently doesn't anticipate any schedule changes. Furthermore, students will not be required to wear masks indoors, even if they're not vaccinated.
However, Stephens College, a private women's college in Columbia, will return to remote learning for the first two weeks of spring semester, from Jan. 10-21, spokesperson Derrell Carter told The Columbia Missourian.
More than 70 colleges nationwide announced by Jan. 1 that they would move to online-only instruction or delay the start of their spring semesters. Among them is Washington University in St. Louis, which will require online learning for at least the first two weeks of the semester.
Meanwhile, high schools across Missouri began their second semesters with varying COVID-19 rules, particularly in regard to masks.
In Columbia, more than 1,000 people signed a petition asking the school district to hold an emergency board meeting to reconsider its decision to drop mask a mandate as of Tuesday, when the spring semester began.
The petition, which was signed by parents and teachers, said the COVID-19 outlook has "drastically changed" since the board voted in December to drop the mandate.
A spokeswoman for the district did not immediately respond to a message seeking comment.
Todd Fuller, a spokesman for the Missouri State Teachers Association, said his family caught COVID-19 over the holiday break and he's worried about what the coming weeks will bring.
He said entire buildings or districts might shut down if cases continue to rise. He said he had heard that some larger districts have many teachers saying they tested positive and the districts are scrambling to find substitutes.
"We are worried about masks and honestly that is the last of our worries right now," Fuller said. "Everybody wants to keep schools open, but this is going to be really challenging in order to do that. It is just going to burn through districts I think."
At least three elementary schools and a high school in the St. Louis region will start the semester online, while some districts near Kansas City have decided to recommend the wearing of masks but not require it, as was the case during the fall semester.
The districts are making the decisions even as some Republican leaders are putting pressure on them to avoid mask mandates. Attorney General Eric Schmitt threatened last month to sue school districts and local health departments that require masks. And State Treasurer Scott Fitzpatrick is requiring school districts trying to refinance bond debt to certify that they'll obey Schmitt's warning.
The districts are grappling with questions about how to keep staffers and students from getting sick amid a surge in COVID-19 in the state. Missouri's seven-day rolling average of newly confirmed cases reached 5,526 per day and its positivity rate for testing was 28%, the state health department reported Tuesday. As of Jan. 1, the state had 2,673 people hospitalized with COVID-19, and hospital bed capacity for inpatient and outpatient services was at 29%.
Kenny Southwick, of the Cooperating School Districts of Greater Kansas City, said Tuesday that 21 of the 32 districts his group represents indicated in a survey before the holiday break that they were shifting to making masks optional or recommended.
He said without political leaders providing coverage for school boards by requiring mandates, people must take responsibility by wearing masks and following other procedures to prevent the spread of the virus.
"It would be great if we had that coverage. We don't have that coverage in Missouri anymore," Southwick said. "So these individual mitigation strategies are going to have to continue until the data gets better."