A Missouri House Committee heard Tuesday from state Department of Health and Senior Services Director Randall Williams and K-12 Education Commissioner Margie Vandeven. During a public hearing at the state Capitol in Jefferson City, they briefed lawmakers about the state’s response to COVID-19, its spending of federal coronavirus relief funds, and reopening measures taken by Missouri’s schools.
The hearing is the second time the Special Committee on Disease Control and Prevention has met. The first time was in March.
Vandeven says the state’s goal is to get as many school buildings open as possible and as safely as possible. She says students could take a real toll if they miss out on months of in-person learning.
“We’re hearing about an increase in suicides,” says Vandeven. “We’re hearing about just what this long-term social and emotional development, particularly for our youngest learners, the impact that we could see decades from now.”
Representative Lane Roberts, a Republican from Joplin and a former Missouri Public Safety Director, says not all students will be safe at home if they are doing online classes.
“When they’re out doing other things, they’re engaging in activities that in my opinion, based on some experience, that those activities generate more injury and death than they would suffer from the virus,” says Roberts.
Vandeven says parents and school leaders should consider both sides of the risk.
“If you go back to any kind of time frame when they are out of school, you do see increases in some of the activities that you are talking about,” she says.
According to Vandeven, the state has distributed as much federal coronavirus aid to Missouri schools as it can at this time. She says Missouri’s local governments can also use their own federal aid to support school-related health measures.
State Representative Kip Kendrick, D-Columbia, passionately encouraged all Missouri school leaders to require students and staff to wear masks.
“For the life of me, I cannot understand why it’s not 10%,” says Kendrick. “If we want to do in-seat, if we want to do this correctly, why is it not 100%.”
Vandeven says the state left the decision up to local leaders to make.
“We’ve certainly provided guidance that talks about the importance of wearing masks,” says Vandeven. “But particularly, if you’re within six feet, we’ve certainly emphasized the importance of that. But those are local decisions.”
“With all due respect, should this be a local decision on masks?” asks Kendrick.
“Well, I’ll ask you all that because this is Missouri and we’ve typically always prided ourselves in being a local control state. I would have to say that we see our role as providing the best guidance that we possibly can and trusting that our local authorities know the best for their communities to make those decisions,” says Vandeven.
A German study shows about 20% of COVID-19 patients surveyed have developed heart problems, including some middle-aged adults with mild cases of the virus. Long after recovering, some patients have reported persistent symptoms like shortness of breath, fatigue, coughing and headaches. Some athletes have chosen to sit out the season out of fear of developing such health complications.
Dr. Williams says science is showing that COVID-19 can target the kidneys, the lungs and heart.
“That’s one thing that just makes me so sensitive to this idea why ‘I’m 25 years old, I’ll just get COVID-19 and go on.’ I don’t believe that’s true. I believe the that sequela of that, whether it’s to your point, two months from now you still have difficulty breathing or muscle aches, or that you give it to someone else. I just think we don’t want anybody to get COVID-19 because I don’t think we know enough about it even at this juncture, eight months into it, to give any assurance to a young person that ‘you are just going to get it and get over it.’ I don’t know that we know that to be true,” says Williams.
Due to the potential long-term health problems, Representative Matt Sain, D-Kansas City, suggested that school leaders shift to online learning until a vaccination is available and there’s more data about the disease.
Susan Goldammer with the Missouri School Boards’ Association testified before the committee. The group represents about 400 school districts around the state.
She says staffing during the pandemic is a prominent question schools are asking her organization about. She says some teachers are retiring early due to COVID-19. Missouri has had a persistent teacher shortage and could even have a shortage of substitute teachers and bus drivers this fall.
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