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story.lead_photo.caption Dr. Randall Williams, Department of Health and Senior Services director, testifies Tuesday before the House Special Committee on Disease Control and Prevention. Photo by Ben Peters, Missouri House of Representatives

Document: MSBA Pandemic Recovery Considerations: Re-Entry and Reopening of Schools

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The News Tribune is offering this article free to all readers because it includes information important to public safety and health in our community.

Missouri's health and education leaders acknowledged Tuesday there are risks to sending students back to school amid the COVID-19 pandemic, but those risks have to be weighed against the long-term consequences of students not returning to school, they said.

Dr. Randall Williams, director of the Missouri Department of Health and Senior Services, told the House Special Committee on Disease Control and Prevention, "We do not want any Missourian to get COVID-19," no matter their risk level.

Although the coronavirus that causes COVID-19 is spreading in Missouri communities primarily among young people — part of the reason there has not been a rise in deaths commensurate with the number of new infections — there's not enough known about the disease to give any assurances to young people that they will simply get over an infection, Williams said.

That comes amid reports of college athletes developing heart health issues that could be related to COVID-19.

However, Margie Vandeven, commissioner of the Missouri Department of Elementary and Secondary Education, told the same House committee Tuesday there are also long-term consequences of students not returning to school — which is why the goal this fall amid the pandemic is to open as many school buildings as possible, as safely as possible, so parents have the choice whether to send their children to school in person or to do school remotely, she said.

Williams was asked by a representative why it's OK to be sending children back to school.

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"We just think school is really important," Williams answered. He added risks and benefits have to be weighed, and he agrees with the American Academy of Pediatrics that school is important.

The AAP, a professional and advocacy organization, included in an announcement in June that it "strongly advocates that all policy considerations for the coming school year should start with a goal of having students physically present in school.

"Lengthy time away from school and associated interruption of supportive services often results in social isolation, making it difficult for schools to identify and address important learning deficits as well as child and adolescent physical or sexual abuse, substance use, depression and suicidal ideation. This, in turn, places children and adolescents at considerable risk of morbidity and, in some cases, mortality. Beyond the educational impact and social impact of school closures, there has been substantial impact on food security and physical activity for children and families," the AAP added.

Williams added the science on the issue is not yet understood, but it seems children younger than 18 and especially younger than 14 do not seem to have the same level of morbidity or mortality with COVID-19 as others.

"I will absolutely not minimize the risk of this virus," Vandeven said, but she also highlighted some of the same concerns as the AAP's for the committee.

Even at the White House, she said, no one said schools could open again as usual; schools have to be thinking about hand-washing, social distancing, mask-wearing and other appropriate measures — and parents should have the right to say, "I'm not sending my child back."

Most decisions about school reopening are at the local level.

When asked by state Rep. Kip Kendrick, D-Columbia, why not every school district in the state is requiring students to wear masks, Vandeven cited that local control.

She did not know how many districts are requiring masks and added she did not know if she would ever be able to share that, given that would mean asking hundreds of local districts about what their decisions are and why.

"We've typically always prided ourselves on being a locally-controlled state," Vandeven said, and DESE's role is to provide the best guidance possible and trust local authorities can make the best decisions for their communities.

Williams said he expects there to be some increase in COVID-19 infections as schools and colleges return to in-person learning, but he added the state's testing capacity is prepared for that.

As for the wider strategy for the state during the months ahead, Williams said the goal is to provide a bridge to when a vaccine will be available.

He said he expects most vaccines for COVID-19 will come in two doses, each a month apart from the other, and each dose will have to come from the same vaccine.

Normally only 45 percent of Missouri's adults get their flu shot, and that number needs to be higher this year — in order to give hospitals capacity to deal with the flu season, COVID-19 and other concurrent seasonal health issues, Williams said.

"We need to do as much prevention as we possibly can," he said.

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