Sep 28, 2021 11:00 PM

SJSD optimistic about local COVID numbers, mask mandate remains for now

Posted Sep 28, 2021 11:00 PM
St. Joseph Schools superintendent Doug Van Zyl. Stock photo by Tommy Rezac.
St. Joseph Schools superintendent Doug Van Zyl. Stock photo by Tommy Rezac.

By TOMMY REZAC

St. Joseph Post

A mask mandate remains in place at the St. Joseph School District, but local COVID numbers are trending in a positive direction, meaning the mandate could end sooner rather than later.

The St. Joseph School board voted 5-1 in favor of the mandate in early August, as the local positivity rate was high and the local vaccination rate was low.

With the positivity rate in Buchanan County down to six percent, and the vaccination rate over 38 percent, St. Joseph Schools superintendent Doug Van Zyl says things are trending in the right direction.

"I just keep updating (the board) on where we are at with our positivity rate," Van Zyl said on KFEQ's The Hotline. "With help from Mosaic and from the county and the city health department. So, looks like we're getting closer and we'll decide where we go from there."

The school board decided in August that the mask mandate could be lifted if the positivity rate in Buchanan County stays below five percent for two weeks.

The board voted 6-1 two weeks ago to keep the mandate in place, as the county's COVID test positivity rate was at 7.51 percent at the time.

Dr. Bryan Green, vice president of the school board and a physician at Mosaic Life Care in St. Joseph, says the board's motivation to implement a mask mandate again this year was simply to keep students in school.

"We very much wanted to keep kids in class as much as possible," Green said. "The positivity rate is one of our best estimates of how active the virus is in the community. We're seeing that rate go down, and we're very thankful for that - both as a medical doctor and as a board of education member."

Van Zyl added that the mask mandate, while not the most popular among certain families in the district, has added benefits for parents as well.

"If their kids have to stay home because they're in quarantine, what are they going to do for the next 10 days?" Van Zyl stated. "They can't just quit working."

Dr. Green has also noticed that it's older students who may not especially like wearing masks, and may not wear them much outside of school. But, he says junior high and high school students recognize that mask wearing, right now, is the best way to keep everyone in school and to keep extracurricular activities going at a normal pace.

"Kids in high school don't want to be forced home," Green noticed. "They want to stay in class, but they also want to be involved in their extracurricular activities. Many of them recognize, 'Yeah, I'm happy to wear a mask if I can continue to try and pursue a more normal life."

St. Joseph, and other public school districts in Missouri that have mask requirements in place, are awaiting the results of a lawsuit filed by Missouri's Republican attorney general Eric Schmitt.

Schmitt in August filed suit against Columbia Public Schools, seeking a court ruling to prevent the district from requiring masks in the classroom.

Hearings in that lawsuit began Tuesday. It's a class action suit, meaning it would apply to any Missouri school district requiring masks. However, a Boone County judge Tuesday dismissed Schmitt's motion to expand the action to every school district in the state that has a mask requirement.

Van Zyl told St. Joseph Post in late August, "I believe that Missouri is a local control state and I think communities and towns and cities and school districts have had that ability over the years and to make an adjustment in that now I think could create some challenges down the road.”

Another ruling that the St. Joseph School District is watching for is whether or not vaccines will be required for employees of all public schools nationwide.

Just last week, a vaccine mandate for New York City schools, the nation’s largest school district, was temporarily halted by a federal appeals court just days before the deadline.

Federal vaccine mandates do not explicitly require vaccines for teachers in locally governed schools, but several states like Oregon, California and New Jersey have ordered teachers to get vaccinated.

It's unlikely that Missouri governor Mike Parson, a Republican, would issue a statewide vaccine mandate for public schools, having spoken in favor of local district control in the past.

Van Zyl added that such a vaccine mandate for St. Joseph schools would not come from the local level, either.

"That would come from some place other than the school board," Van Zyl explained. "It'd be coming from the state or federal government, and we're just waiting to see how that all plays out."

In a  COVID vaccine survey sent out to the St. Joseph School district's 1,500 employees, 900 of them responded, and between 70 and 80 percent of those 900 are at least partially vaccinated against COVID, according to Van Zyl.

"We have a pretty decent percentage, but like most other places, not everybody is vaccinated."

You can follow Tommy on Twitter @TommyKFEQ and St. Joseph Post @StJosephPost.