FILE - School classroom

(The Center Square) – While economists predict record spending by families on school supplies in preparation for the 2021-22 school year, Missouri parents and school administrators will have to add masks to their shopping lists.

Starting Monday, all those 5 and older, including those who are vaccinated, will be required to wear masks in indoor public places and on public transportation in St. Louis and St. Louis County. The health departments of both governments are encouraging masks to be worn outdoors, especially in group settings.

Many school districts throughout the state planned to take advantage of time in early August – provided by legislation passed in 2019 – to wait for any requirements from public health departments. Some of Missouri’s larger school districts and the largest parochial school system in the state announced plans last week, but most are waiting a few weeks before announcing mask requirements to prevent COVID-19 infections. There are two reasons for the delay.

First, the earliest date public schools may begin is Aug. 23. This is the result of an education omnibus bill signed into law in 2019 by Gov. Mike Parson. It requires school districts to set an opening date no earlier than 14 calendar days prior to the first Monday in September.

Second, administrators seem to be waiting for directives from local public health departments and municipalities.

“Every county has a different health department and we’ve heard the rumors about mask mandates,” said Paul Ziegler, chief executive officer of EducationPlus, a nonprofit educational service agency serving 54 public school districts and six charter schools in the St. Louis metropolitan area. “Obviously, any orders would carry over to schools. We weren’t seeing a lot of movement in this until pediatricians started pointing to it. And schools are focusing on providing a safe environment with a minimum of disruptions. They're also looking at other mitigation strategies."

Dr. Faisal Khan, acting director of the department of health in St. Louis County, issued a public health advisory on Wednesday encouraging the wearing of masks due to increases in COVID infections in vaccinated people. The department recommended, regardless of vaccination status, wearing a face covering in indoor public places when the vaccination status of those around you is unknown.

“Masking, avoiding being around those who are not vaccinated and separating yourself from others who are sick also reduces your risk of getting COVID-19, whether you are vaccinated or unvaccinated,” Khan wrote in the advisory.

State Sen. Andrew Koenig, R-Manchester, voiced opposition to schools mandating masks.

“Total deaths from #COVID19 for 17 and under is less than 350 in a country that has 75 million youths,” Koenig wrote on social media. “The same population in 2019 has over 800 deaths from pneumonia (just one example). The risk is so low it is insane to force our kids to #MaskUp when they go back to school.”

Some of Missouri’s larger school districts required students to wear masks during summer school. St. Louis Public Schools, with 21,000 students, and the Hazelwood School District, with 17,000 students in north St. Louis County, announced earlier this week it will continue requiring masks for students and staff. Kansas City Public Schools leaders are leaning toward requiring masks for students and teachers.

Ziegler formed a working group of pediatricians from the St. Louis area to assist school districts in preparing for the school year. Earlier this week, Ziegler said the pediatricians were concerned after reviewing a report showing 20% of new COVID-19 cases in the region were under age 18.

“This really got their attention,” Ziegler said. “Every community is going to wrestle with this. I can assure you there will be implementation of masks. What we don’t want is students forced into quarantines because they’re disruptive to the student, to parents and teachers. The more we can do to avoid quarantines, the better off we will be.”

A message from the Archdiocese of St. Louis last week stated “wearing of masks in archdiocesan schools will be optional and at the discretion of each individual family,” according to media reports. Approximately 50,000 students attend Catholic schools in an 11-county region in eastern Missouri.

Springfield, the largest school district in the state with more than 25,000 students and serving Greene County, required masks for summer school.

“We anticipate a decision for the 2021-2022 school year will be made in early August, based on continued evaluation of data,” Stephen Hall, chief communications officer for Springfield Public Schools, said in an email.

Greene County is averaging 169 new COVID-19 cases per day during the last seven days, according to the Missouri department of health and senior service website. Parson on Thursday directed ambulance strike teams from the State of Arkansas Division of Emergency Management, through a mutual aid agreement among states, into Greene County to assist local hospitals. A news release from Parson’s office said the Missouri State Emergency Management Agency escalated to the Federal Emergency Management Agency a request to convert a Springfield hotel into a stand-alone alternate care site.

Staff Reporter

Joe Mueller covers Missouri for The Center Square. After seven years of reporting for daily newspapers in Illinois and Missouri, he spent the next 30 years in public relations serving non-profit organizations and as a strategic communications consultant.