State officials in health and education held a webinar to discuss the next step for Missouri schools going forward in the fight against COVID-19.

MISSOURI - State health and education officials hosted a webinar Wednesday to discuss COVID-19 protocol updates for local school districts.

Districts are beginning to relax their coronavirus precautions in light of slowing case numbers over the time period from November 2020 to present.

Nathan Koffarnus, Missouri Department of Health and Senior Services program coordinator of communicable disease control and prevention, began the presentation by reviewing updated numbers on the Missouri COVID-19 dashboard.

The speakers reviewed mitigation strategies in use at local levels and shared how those strategies should continue or change as schools prepare for the 2020 summer and fall semesters.

Below are some of the mitigation tools covered during the presentation.

Hybrid learning models

“Case studies and data continue to show that in-person learning can be done safely for all students who choose that option five days a week,” Margie Vandeeven, Commissioner of Education, said.

“Both President Biden and education secretary Miguel Cardona have indicated the federal government has an expectation that every school across the country will offer in-person learning, full time, five days a week at the start of next school year,” she said.

According to the presentation, other mitigation strategies may be more important when transitioning from hybrid to in-person to ensure safety, as well as comfort and confidence.

“Obviously there are remote or virtual learning options that should be available for the families who choose that option,” Vandeeven said.

In Missouri this could be done through MOCAP, or any program that the individual districts may provide.

Mask requirements

“I have been hopeful that at some point we will be able to eliminate the use of masks,” Dr. Rachel Orscheln, director of ambulatory pediatric infectious disease at St. Louis Children's Hospital, said. “But we are certainly not there at this moment.”

She said masks may have been the most effective tools used in schools and advised school districts against lifting any masking requirements in their buildings.

“They may be one of the most effective tools that have been implemented in schools,” she said.

She also mentioned other respiratory viruses have significantly declined in numbers this year.

“This has had a substantial impact on all illnesses… we’ve essentially vanquished strep throat,” she said.

Physical distancing, barriers and cohorting students

“What we have learned… is that schools can operate with very little evidence of transmission, even when students are less than six feet apart when other mitigation strategies are in place” Orscheln said. “Probably most importantly the use of face masks.”

She said this makes it possible to have more students in the class physically, as 3 feet of distance has not caused an increase in transmission.

Rigorous cleaning and sanitizing

“Cleaning our schools and keeping them clean is always important,” Vandeeven said. “No matter if COVID-19 is around or not.”

She wanted to emphasize that this mitigation tactic has been especially rigorous this school year, to try and reduce the transmission of the coronavirus.

“What we have learned through the course of the last year is that this is really a respiratory virus that is transmitted primarily through respiratory droplets,” Orscheln said.

She said tactics like sanitizing will likely be valuable well into the future for fighting other illnesses. However, the more extensive sanitizing that we have seen in schools over the past year will not be necessary.

Vaccinating staff and students

Paths to Control of COVID-19

According to the presentation, the risk of coronavirus transmission in schools will depend on the community uptake of vaccination.

“Ultimately we will get to a point where we have control of COVID-19,” Orscheln said.

She defined control of COVID-19 as a situation in which death and hospitalization rates are low.

Dr. Orscheln considers natural infection as the ‘hard way,’ saying, “we see increased deaths, disability, healthcare costs, lost wages.”

She said reaching herd immunity would take a long time, while also still needing to use mitigation strategies to try and slow the outbreak so that the healthcare infrastructure is not overwhelmed.

Orscheln says if we take the ‘straight path’ through vaccinations, other mitigation strategies can be relaxed.

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