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Missouri school district without mask mandate sees hundreds of quarantines in 1st semester

South Harrison Middle School.png
Posted at 11:23 AM, Dec 14, 2020
and last updated 2020-12-14 14:23:33-05

BETHANY, Mo. — Nearly every school in the Kansas City area requires students and staff to wear masks on campus. But that's not the case across the state of Missouri.

As of early December, none of the five districts in Harrison County, Missouri — located about 90 minutes northeast of Kansas City — had required masks, but that's soon changing.

"We have several students, several faculty and staff, that decide to wear a mask," said Dennis Eastin, the superintendent at South Harrison R-II in Bethany. "It is personally up to them."

Signs around the campus encourage the use of masks, but the school board decided not to require a mask mandate at the beginning of the school year. Eastin said that decision has been revisited at board meetings, but not changed.

Eastin said he hears from parents who support the lack of a mandate, and parents who wish the school would install one.

"Both are justified in their argument," Eastin said. "I would say there's a difference of opinion out there."

Members of the school board have shared their opinions, too. School Board Vice President C.F. Rainey has multiple posts on his personal Facebook page that criticize mask-wearing and public lockdowns.

Rainey declined to comment publicly but did say he would allow data that he posted on his Facebook page to stand on its own. Four other members of the school board did not respond to interview requests.

South Harrison has roughly 1,000 students in kindergarten through 12th grade. Harrison County's Health Department said that 487 students and faculty have been put under quarantine and/or isolation as of Dec. 2. That number includes students who have had multiple quarantines, and it includes Eastin.

Eastin said the largest number of students quarantined at one time happened in November. Roughly 60 students on the 3 and 4-year-old campuses had to stay home for more than two weeks because a staff member had an issue with COVID-19.

"I'm supposed to check my kids' temperature every day before they go to school," Cassi Deskins, a South Harrison parent, said. "Do you think that 95% of the parents are doing that? Absolutely not."

Deskins is a nurse practitioner in Harrison County who regularly sees COVID-19 patients. Her children wear masks when they go to South Harrison Elementary.

"I work in Gilman City, which is a very small community," Deskins said. "There's one clinic. I don't have the option to stay home with my children. My husband is also an essential worker."

Deskins said parents in the district are frustrated with how often their children have to quarantine.

"One of my best friends' daughter has been out four times," Deskins said. "She was on three, two-week quarantines, and then has been on a 10-day quarantine."

But she still doesn't expect the school board to institute a mask mandate.

"I would be thoroughly surprised if there's a mask mandate of South Harrison Schools," Deskins said.

But as of Thursday, Dec. 10, the Harrison County Health Department Board had voted to implement a county-wide mask policy. That new policy, which goes into effect on Dec. 17, will require the county's school districts to comply.

"Listening to the data, they say the safest place for our kids is in the school building," Eastin said. "And schools should be open, and that's what we're planning to do."

Eastin said that the district has spent more than $90,000 this year on technology upgrades, including hot spots that families are able to check out when their children are forced to learn from home. He said roughly 45 students chose distance learning full time.

This story was originally published by Taylor Hemness on KSHB in Kansas City, Missouri.