NEOSHO, Mo. — A change in quarantine procedures for Newton County schools has caused concern from the state department of education and pushed the county's biggest district to revert back to its original policy.

Last week, Larry Bergner, director of the Newton County Health Department, adjusted procedures for schools to allow students quarantined because of close contact to a positive case of COVID-19 to continue attending in-person classes.

The change was made because students quarantined because of close contact accounted for a high number of absences — around 30 per positive case, Bergner said. That's too many kids missing the benefits of in-person instruction, Bergner said.

"Basically, we're treating these students like we were treating essential employees," Bergner said. "If you're considered an essential employee, then if you are a contact but not showing symptoms, then as long as they abide by social distancing, why couldn't we treat students as essential also? Students need to be learning."

Newton County's four largest school districts put some of the changes into effect as early as Wednesday of last week. On Monday, however, Neosho reverted back to its original policy of a 14-day quarantine. According to a statement from the district, "What started out as a quiet effort to determine if we could keep students in school without having a spike in positive cases became a political issue."

Later that day, the district announced a closure of the Jefferson Street Campus, an alternative school for high school students, after a positive case and a number of other symptoms surfaced within the building's smaller population.

The policy has no effect on Joplin School District buildings with Newton County addresses.

A spokesperson with the Missouri Department of Elementary and Secondary Education said that department officials spoke with the Neosho School District on Wednesday about the changes and expressed concerns about the shift from state and national standards about limiting the spread of COVID-19. But the department has no enforcement power to reverse the decision.

"Missouri is a local-control state," said Mallory McGowin, communications director for the department. "However, DESE expressed serious concerns about deviating from the standard of care, and continues to recommend (the state's recommended) guidance for quarantine and isolation."

The state's recommendations are based on what the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention advises for schools.

A close contact is defined as someone who for more than 15 minutes was within 6 feet of a person who tests positive for the novel coronavirus. Factors schools should consider are the proximity of the case to contacts, the duration of exposure, symptoms of the case at the time and the type of interaction or activities done together. Someone who meets those definitions should not be in school, the Department of Elementary and Secondary Education recommends. As part of the quarantine, close-contact people should stay home for 14 days after the last contact with a positive case and watch for symptoms.

While still being prohibited from going to work or other activities, the loosened policy in Newton County allows close-contact students to attend classes and school activities under certain restrictions:

• Close contacts must wear a face mask or covering until proper social distancing can be observed, including during sporting or other extracurricular activities. In case where masks are not feasible, the contact must have a negative COVID-19 test within 36 hours of the activity's start time.

• School personnel and parents must monitor the contact for any symptoms, isolating them immediately upon observation.

• If numbers increase, the district may revert back to a more stringent policy.

The Seneca School District took the opportunity to enact the change with more stringent limitations. Superintendent Brandon Eggleston said close contacts must wear masks at all times, submit to two temperature checks a day and be separated during meal times.

"The things we've put in place, we're looking at on a day-by-day basis and monitoring numbers," Eggleston said. "This is something that is easy for us to take back if we see a rise."

The Diamond School District is set to resume in-person instruction on Wednesday. Because of a high number of close contacts in quarantine, it closed buildings last week and shifted to distance learning.

COVID-19 cases are currently trending upward, Bergner said. The county as of Monday afternoon reported 259 active cases, more than the county’s all-time low of 120 on Sept. 2 but less than the county’s all-time high of 432 on July 2, he said. 

Joe Hadsall is the digital editor for The Joplin Globe. He has been the editor of the former Nixa News-Enterprise and has worked for the Christian County Headliner News and 417 Magazine.