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Missouri Gov. Mike Parson, pictured here speaking at Northwest Missouri State University in August, announced new guidelines for close contacts in K-12 schools Thursday.

MARYVILLE, Mo. — Missouri Gov. Mike Parson announced Thursday adjustments to COVID-19 quarantine guidelines for schools after K-12 officials across northwest Missouri and the state said student quarantines were disrupting learning.

“We have been working hard with (the Department of Elementary and Secondary Education) and the Department of Health and Senior Services to find a solution that allows us to continue providing a high quality education to Missouri students while still ensuring the safety of students, teachers and all school staff members,” Parson said in a press conference Thursday morning. “Because transmission within our schools appears to be low, and masks continue to be effective in slowing the spread of the virus, Missouri is modifying its guidance regarding when students and educators should quarantine after being exposed to COVID-19 while in a school setting.”

The state guidance will no longer require students or staff to be considered a close contact or to subsequently quarantine as long as they do not show symptoms and all parties involved in the exposure were properly wearing masks.

The move comes after 16 northwest Missouri superintendents echoed concerns from other school officials from around the state in a letter sent to Parson and other state officials, asking them to reduce the quarantine time and to take up a policy like the one the governor announced Thursday. The quarantine period guidance will remain 14 days.

“What we have seen is that we have very little evidence of spread of the virus when we have a positive case in the school environment,” said Dr. Rachel Orscheln, an associate professor of pediatrics at Saint Louis University and a pediatric infectious disease expert at St. Louis Children’s Hospital. “But what we are seeing is that a large number of students are being quarantined related to this exposure. But, as we follow the data, we find that there are very few secondary cases developing in those students.”

Orscheln said that because school districts across the state have implemented mitigation measures like social distancing in classrooms, using cohorts to reduce group sizes and keep students in the same groups, and especially masks, they are in a unique position to receive the new guidance.

“And so at this time, it is reasonable to adapt our approach to take into consideration the mitigation measures that are being used and to allow for those who have a very low risk of infection to remain in the school environment,” she said. “There still will be students and staff that need to quarantine. Certainly people who have encounters in a social setting, and particularly unmasked encounters, will still need to quarantine. But when all the appropriate procedures are in place, we can feel safe that students who have an exposure but are masked can remain in the school environment.”

State officials will keep in contact with local health departments and the CDC to monitor how cases may react, but DESE Commissioner Margie Vandeven said she was optimistic that because other neighboring states, like Iowa and Nebraska, have enacted similar measures. In Iowa, the guidance also applies to the general public, not just in school settings.

“As you heard the governor say, the procedures our schools have been following regarding quarantine are not sustainable,” Vandeven said. “… The large number of students and school staff members required to quarantine has presented a significant strain on educators, school leaders and Missouri families alike. These large numbers of students and staff members who have to stay home is creating significant unintended consequences.”

All public school superintendents in Nodaway County signed the letter to the governor, making it likely that all districts will choose to enact the new guidelines.

“At this time, we feel this is an appropriate practice, and we could really all take a lesson from school children and use these strategies that are so effective in reducing transmission,” Orscheln said, “such as avoiding crowds, using physical distancing, and probably most importantly, using face masks.”

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