Masking will be optional, with rare exception, when Springfield students, teachers and staff return to class Tuesday.
There will also be a shorter quarantine period in effect — courtesy of the CDC — for school employees.
"COVID-positive staff will be excluded from work for at least five days with the ability to return to work, masked, for an additional five days, as long as symptoms are resolving. This includes the absence of fever for 24 hours without fever-reducing medication," said Stephen Hall, chief communications officer for Springfield Public Schools.
"COVID-positive students will continue to be excluded from school and school-related activities for 10 days."
Students in "direct contact" with a person who tested positive for COVID-19 will be notified but will no longer be required to quarantine as long as they don't have any symptoms.
"They would not be excluded from school unless they are symptomatic," he said.
Hall said the district consulted with local health officials to determine if the new guidance regarding quarantines from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention also applied to students.
At this point, the district does not believe it applies. However, Hall said that may change as the guidance is updated.
Masking requirements will change
On Dec. 22, the district announced masking required in place during the 2020-21 school year, part of the 2021 summer session, and the fall 2021 semester will be dropped.
The district cited a letter from Attorney General Eric Schmitt ordering Missouri schools to end many COVID-19 mitigation strategies, including masking, for the change.
Schmitt celebrated the change on Twitter, calling it "good news" and a "huge win" for the students in Springfield.
"Families should be able to make these decisions — not the government," Schmitt said in the statement, which also made the false claim that masking is not supported by data or science.
Hall said masking in Springfield schools will be optional going forward, except in rare circumstances.
For example, masking continues to be required on school buses and all district-related transportation because of a federal order.
Employees who test positive for COVID-19 and wish to return to work after five days — provided they have been fever-free for 24 hours — will be expected to mask for the first five days back at work.
"Just as our ability with exclusion from school has been limited by the Attorney General's cease-and-desist letter and directives, so has our ability to do anything regarding a mandate with masking," Hall said. "However, we are continuing to make it very clear that masking is strongly recommended in all district facilities."
Asked if employees who have not tested positive for COVID-19 will face any backlash if they fail to mask, Hall said no.
"As a result of not being a mandate, (masking) is strongly recommended but it would be an option," he said.
Free COVID-19 testing available
Students and staff who have symptoms of any illness, COVID-19 or not, are expected to stay home until the symptoms resolve or they have been cleared by a medical provider.
The district will continue to provide free testing for any student or employee.
Families interested in obtaining a test for a student should contact the school nurse and employees should contact a supervisor to schedule the rapid test, which provides results the same day.
"We provide testing and we encourage you to utilize that. We provide it free or charge," Hall said. "The testing process is very easy."
Prior to a recent surge in cases, likely fueled by the omicron variant, the district planned to switch to optional masking in mid-January.
Hall said the district made the change even earlier because of Schmitt.
"It is incredibly unfortunate that at the beginning of a significant surge, school districts and public health officials across the state of Missouri have been significantly restricted in our ability to mitigate the spread of COVID-19," he said.
"We remain concerned and will continue to monitor but we are having to navigate within the guidelines and directives that we have been given by the Attorney General."
COVID case numbers will be available online
The district will report weekly COVID-19 cases each Monday at sps.org/covidstats.
"We are committed to remaining transparent in the way that we report information," Hall said. "We will continue to provide weekly case numbers."
However, the district's daily updates providing a tally of individuals who test positive by school building will not continue. Asked to explain, Hall said they are no longer useful.
"We believe that has lost its effectiveness in terms of people really paying attention to what is happening," he said.
Will Springfield schools switch to virtual learning again?
The News-Leader asked if there was any discussion about starting the spring semester virtually. Hall said no.
Hall said the district will make the switch from in-person learning to virtual learning when needed and in targeted ways.
For example, an outbreak that impacts the students or staffing in a particular classroom, grade level or school building might prompt the switch.
"We would do the same thing we've always done," he said. "If there would be a need to transition a class to virtual learning for a period of time because of a surge in that particular classroom, then that would be a mitigation strategy that we would deploy."
Claudette Riley is the education reporter for the News-Leader. Email news tips to firstname.lastname@example.org.
This article originally appeared on Springfield News-Leader: Springfield schools resume class Tuesday with updated COVID protocols