California schools break with health center due to COVID-19 guidelines

CALIFORNI — The latest updated COVID-19 guidelines from the Moniteau County R-1 School District were amended without input from the Moniteau County Health Center.

Earlier this month, the district’s Education Board chose to adopt an addendum to its existing policy — risk levels indicating transmission of COVID-19 within the school community, from green to red, modeled on Cole County Health guidelines. Department applicable to schools in the neighboring province.

The district’s other guidelines have not been replaced or removed, and protocols at each level of risk ensure implementation of required PPE use and quarantine if close contact is established.

The low spread outlined in the “green” category — 0-3 percent positive cases among the district’s population of 1,591 students and staff — essentially eliminates mandatory close contact quarantines to keep students personally in school.

However, the school board chose the addendum while consulting only with other local school administrators, not their local public health authority, as defined by the Missouri Department of Elementary and Secondary Education. The addendum was approved on Nov. 10 and the health center was notified the same day. Health center administrator Andrea Kincaid then notified the Missouri Department of Health and Senior Services.

DESE’s Missouri School COVID-19 Operating Guidance document, last updated Oct. 8, recommends that a school should work with the public health authority in the community to establish COVID-19 guidelines

A DESE representative said state officials have encouraged local school leaders and local health departments to work together to develop COVID-19 protocols that best meet the needs of their immediate communities during the pandemic.

“As we have done from the start of the pandemic, the Department of Elementary and Secondary Education is urging local school leaders to work with their local health department to develop policies and protocols that best protect students and staff” , DESE Chief Communications Officer Mallory McGowin said. “The guidelines from DESE and the Department of Health and Senior Services reiterate that collaboration and communication are essential in these (challenging) times.”

District administrators approached the health center about adopting the recent addendum ahead of the October school board meeting and received a negative response regarding breaking current county guidelines. The health center, in turn, noted that this was because officials said it would be best to get through the fall — a time when the spread of COVID-19 peaked in 2020 — before considering any changes.

“I also think that when we look at our vaccination coverage, looking at the full picture, I think we weren’t quite ready for that,” said Michelle Wilfong, the communicable disease program coordinator at the Moniteau County Health Center.

The Health Center couple also noted that the potential knock-on effect of other district school districts following suit is a concern. However, Dwight Sanders, Superintendent of Moniteau County R-1, said he doesn’t expect this to happen, given the differences between California’s schools and other smaller Moniteau County counties.

Sanders and Derek VanLoo, school board chairman, said the board has no plans to work with the health center on future COVID-19-related changes to the guidelines. However, the board will continue to follow the health center’s guidelines on other public health issues.

Representatives from the health center have expressed concern that taking such steps without input from a public health agency could put the community at risk for a potential COVID-19 outbreak.

“I told them we’re responsible for six districts—plus nursing homes and workplaces. So in the bigger picture, we have a lot of people to protect,” Kincaid said. “So if our largest school district does something that is totally contrary to what we’ve implemented as a county, that’s a little (alarming).”

VanLoo said: “I know the primary goal of the health department is to focus on the health of the child, and it is the physical health of the child first and foremost, and as a school and as a school district and as school board members we try to take all aspects of health in your mind, be it mental, social or emotional.

“That’s hard to balance, really, to try to put one aspect of health before another,” he said. “It was a big part of our discussion.”

There is an impact — especially for lower-age students — of being forced out of the “school sphere,” VanLoo said.

Sanders and VanLoo also pointed to feedback from neighborhood patrons who were frustrated with their children being forced into quarantine, which was one factor that prompted the school board to seek an outside solution.

“I think our board listens very carefully to our customers,” said VanLoo. “When the board comes together and we hear similar stories from the community, we need to act on those things. And it’s one thing when you hear one or two voices in the community. But once you start hearing it from the vast majority of the community, it’s time you changed your policy to agree to what they’re asking.”

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