ST. LOUIS — Students at most St. Louis-area Roman Catholic schools will not be required to wear masks this fall, the Archdiocese of St. Louis announced Tuesday. The decision came amid warnings from local health officials about troubling signs of COVID-19 infections spreading among unvaccinated children in the region.
“Beginning this upcoming academic year, the wearing of masks in archdiocesan schools will be optional and at the discretion of each individual family,” the Archdiocese of St. Louis said in a message sent Tuesday. “The archdiocese urges all school families, students, leadership, faculties and staffs to be thoughtful of their own health — and that of their community — in all of their decisions, especially regarding the wearing of masks and monitoring for COVID-19 symptoms.”
Most area school districts have not released COVID-19 prevention plans for fall 2021. Northwest School District in Jefferson County and Rockwood School District in St. Louis County dropped their mask mandates for summer school.
The message from the archdiocese also “strongly encourages” COVID-19 vaccination for eligible staff and students 12 and older. More than 50,000 students in an 11-county region attend Catholic schools, according to the archdiocese’s website.
Meanwhile, the St. Louis County Department of Public Health released a health advisory late Wednesday warning that cases are “increasing at alarming rate” with outbreaks among children not yet seen in the pandemic.
“We are very concerned about the health and wellness of children in the region. Children are transmitting COVID-19 to each other much more easily now than they were last year,” the advisory read. “In the last month, we have seen multiple outbreaks in day cares and camps that are largely driven by unvaccinated adults transmitting the disease to children, then children transmitting among each other.”
Summer programs and day cares are seeing nearly everyone in a classroom become infected, whereas previously, an infected child may only spread it to a couple others, said Amanda Brzozowski, senior epidemiologist with the county.
“We really didn’t see that kind of widespread transmission among kids very frequently last year,” Brzozowski said. “Day cares have even called me and said, ’You know, we didn’t ever have transmission in the first year and a half of this. Why is this happening now?’”
Brzozowski suspects that the more infectious delta variant gaining a foothold in Missouri is to blame; exacerbated by the loosening of mitigation measures, such as wearing masks, staying home when sick and minimizing visitors in the building.
“It just shows us exactly what kind of beast we might be working with now, and it shows us that maintaining the mitigation is even more important in protecting the kids and the staff,” she said.
Brzozowski said she is sympathetic to the need for schools to plan mitigation polices, but it may be premature.
“I’m really urging all of those schools to be patient so that we can learn from what we’re seeing this summer and learn from the day cares and learn from the summer camps,” Brzozowski said. “We can see what is going on with the variants. We want to see what the transmission looks like.”
Cases continue to climb
New COVID-19 cases have increased by in St. Louis County over the past two weeks by 58%, according to the New York Times tracking site. The city of St. Louis saw a 45% increase, and the St. Charles County saw a 181% increase.
Statewide, Missouri saw the seven-day average number of new cases reach 1,525 on Tuesday, nearly double what it was two weeks ago at 823 and the highest since Feb. 6.
St. Louis County also released a report this week that included detailed case data over two weeks ending July 5, which showed the rate of new cases increased among all youth age groups.
The largest was a 126% increase among those ages 15 to 19 — which went from 8.8 to 19.9 cases per 100,000 people per day. Positivity rates among youth also saw big increases, with the biggest again among the 15-to-19 group, going from 4.2 to 11.5% in two weeks.
Among children ages 10 to 19 in the county (how the vaccine data is collected), 35% have initiated vaccination, officials said.
Statewide, data shows just 22% of youth ages 12 to 14 have initiated vaccination. Among the 15-to-24 category, 33.6% have gotten at least one dose.
The U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention on Friday updated its guidance for COVID-19 prevention in schools. The guidance prioritizes in-person learning and states that only unvaccinated students and teachers need to wear a mask. Students are recommended to stay 3 feet apart if possible.
Ventilation, handwashing, staying home when sick, getting tested and quarantining are also other important layers of prevention.
Cities and states are so far taking different approaches. Some states like Texas and Iowa are prohibiting schools from requiring masks, while cities like New York and Chicago have required students to wear masks.
Strategies for parents
Dr. David Hunstad, infectious disease specialist at St. Louis Children’s Hospital, said the CDC recognizes that masking is one strategy out of many to reduce transmission, and that each school has different considerations when crafting their policies.
Hunstad says even at schools with mask-optional policies, parents should feel comfortable having their unvaccinated child wear a mask, especially if the child is in close contact with people who have chronic health conditions.
“If you as a parent are concerned about that, then please feel free to mask your child or ask your child to wear a mask and as much as possible,” he said. “And encourage your fellow parents in the school district or class to have their kids wear masks because that helps protect your child at the very least.”
Parents being vigilant in identifying when their child is sick will be key, he said.
“Really just having a low threshold for holding these kids out of school on a given day and getting tested, because I think that will be really an important piece,” he said.
To help answer parents questions about children and the COVID-19 vaccine, two pediatric infectious disease specialists with St. Louis Children’s Hospital, Dr. Rachel Orscheln and Dr. Jason Newland, will host a livestream event on the hospital’s Facebook page Thursday at 7 p.m. They’ll answer questions about how families can navigate the return to school.
Updated at 8:33 p.m.