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Columbia, Jefferson City public schools reinstate mask mandates as coronavirus cases set records


Public schools in Jefferson City and Columbia will require students and staff to wear masks starting next week, citing sharp increases in coronavirus cases.

Each district announced the changes in letters to parents and news releases Thursday.

The Jefferson City School District said Thursday afternoon that all of its buildings and schools will operate under yellow protocols starting Tuesday. According to the school district's re-entry plans, yellow protocols require students and staff to wear masks indoors when a social distance of 3 feet or more isn't possible.

"In the coming weeks, it will be vitally important that we all continue to adhere to best practices in order to keep ourselves and others healthy, including: stay home when you are sick; keep yourself safe by wearing a mask and getting a COVID-19 vaccine; maintain social distance; and wash your hands," the district said in a letter to parents and guardians.

Columbia Public Schools followed a few hours later, saying students and staff would wear masks through Feb. 4 once they return Tuesday after the Martin Luther King Jr. holiday.

JC Schools said the district will only hold gatherings or assemblies where social distancing can be maintained. JC Schools also plans to adopt the new isolation protocols from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, which allow people sickened or exposed to stop isolation or quarantine after five days if they have no symptoms. The district said this change will allow more than 70 staffers to return Tuesday, when classes restart after the weekend and Martin Luther King Jr. Day.

The district said in a news release that it has seen a sharp increase in coronavirus positives and contacts this week -- the second week of classes following the holiday break. The change is in effect until further notice.

Jefferson City Parent JoDe Layton-Brinker said she has a kindergartener and is 100% in support of having to go back to masking.

"The infection rate is growing expediently by the day. In order to keep children in seats and have the proper staff to student ratio the school has no other option," Layton-Brinker said. "There is an extreme shortage of substitutes in our district already so something has to give to protect our teachers from more burnout and also from more active cases in our school setting. I believe they are being proactive considering the challenges they are currently faced with."

As of Wednesday, JCPS had 78 active student COVID-19 cases and 44 cases among staff members. Over 32% of the district's cases are at Capital City High School with 27 students and 13 staff members affected.

A teacher at Capital City High School, Libby Hafley, says, "I was loving to be able to see my students' faces but yes, it's time to put them (masks) back on for a while."

In Columbia, some teachers, parents and students had been clamoring for the reinstatement of a mask mandate after the school board repealed it last month while facing legal threats from the state government. They used an online petition drive, student protests and a letter-writing campaign.

Although there is support for the mandate, not everyone is on board. One CPS parent, Savannah, said, "They shouldn't have to. Period. Cases are still spreading even with masks. So it does nothing. Scientifically, this is a war of immune system. Build it."

CPS Superintendent Brian Yearwood cited soaring case numbers in his letter about the mask mandate Thursday. The district has seen a 20% absentee rate over the last week, Yearwood wrote.

Yearwood's letter said the school board would also consider "emergency interventions and revisions to the district’s COVID response plan" at a Jan. 20 work session.

Yearwood also asked parents to check their students for symptoms before school each day. The move comes as the omicron variant spreads and sickens hundreds of students and staff. The district reported 348 active student cases Thursday and 105 staff cases.

JC Schools and CPS made their decisions as hospitals around the area, including in Jefferson City, are swamped with COVID-19 patients and seeing a rash of sick workers that further strains resources. Several hospitals this week further limited visitors to help contain the virus.

Professional development for teachers in Jefferson City has been canceled for the month to free up more time for teaching amid the increased absences, the district said.

Mid-Missouri and the state as a whole continue to see record-breaking coronavirus case numbers and hospitalizations as the more transmissible omicron variant becomes dominant, including Cole County. The state health department reports a nearly 40% increase in new cases there in the last week. The county health department has reported nine days of 80 or more cases this month alone after reporting zero such days last month.

Boone County set new records for most daily cases and active cases on Thursday. Those records have been set and broken numerous times over the past two weeks.

Article Topic Follows: Jefferson City
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