When Diamond High School students returned to school last Tuesday, after a shutdown related to COVID-19 quarantines, Superintendent Keith White said they were excited to be back.

"They were glad to be back, and excited like the first day of school," White said.

Diamond on Sept. 15 announced that its high school would close for about a week because of a high number of absences related to quarantines. Six students and a teacher in the building tested positive for COVID-19 at that time.

Had a new policy from the Newton County Health Department allowing close-contact quarantine students to attend classes been in effect, Diamond wouldn't have had to close, White said. Instead, almost 90 students with no symptoms were sent home, White said.

"We went from our first positive test, then after the weekend we had to quarantine 41 in one day," White said. "With a small school, with that many kids out, it wasn't reasonable to stay open. We needed to do something."

The quarantine policy instituted about two weeks ago by the health department continued to generate discussion and controversy throughout last week. The issue made it all the way to "Cuomo Prime Time" on CNN.

While the county's largest district backed away from it last Monday, three other school districts, including Diamond, East Newton and Seneca, plan to continue using it, with their superintendents saying it is working for them.

"I couldn't make a recommendation for anyone else, but for us, it's working so far," said Ron Mitchell, superintendent of the East Newton School District. "But this entire thing is a day-to-day test to see how it works. We are ready to pivot back and go to more strict guidelines if we need to."

Different from state

The policy stands in contrast to state recommendations based on information from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention: 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.

Newton County's policy deviates from the state recommendations: 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 of symptoms.

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

Larry Bergner, health department director, said on Monday, Sept. 21, the policy was enacted to control excessive absences created by the quarantines and prioritize the importance of in-person instruction. Bergner said that closures related to the pandemic are causing other problems at home such as malnutrition, depression and domestic violence.

Feedback from parents, teachers

Opinions from parents are mixed.

Amber Tucker, a mother of four in the Seneca School District, said she is furious about the shift, because it puts the health of her children at risk.

"If they are in quarantine, they should not be coming to school, even with a mask on," Tucker said. "They should be quarantined where they need to be. We're going to have to shut schools down completely if we continue to let them come."

Stephanie Mikeska of Granby, a mother of two students in the East Newton School District, said she was in favor of the change. Before the change, she had already been in touch with the superintendent and principal about her concerns with how school was handled at the beginning of the outbreak in March. She would eventually quit her job to care for and educate her kids full-time.

"I'm on the side of the fence that I don't think this is going away anytime soon, but the kids need the education, socialization and sense of normalcy," Mikeska said. "When schools closed in the spring, East Newton dropped the ball on their education. I became responsible for their education."

School superintendents reported similar splits of support and opposition from parents.

The Neosho district conducted a survey of its more than 700 staff members about which policy they preferred. The only point of identification on the anonymous survey was whether the staff member had students in the district, said Superintendent Jim Cummins.

Among both groups, staff members were generally more in favor of the county's relaxed policy, but not by such a large majority that justified sticking with it, Cummins said. Of 122 responses from staff members with students in the district, 76 preferred the county's policy and 46 preferred the state's recommendations. Of staff members without students in the district, it was 86 to 69 in favor of the county policy.

Cummins said the district rolled back to the state's recommendations in an effort to keep focus on the district's progress in other areas. While the Department of Elementary and Secondary Education cannot force a policy change, it made a statement last week that it was not in support of using the county's standards.

"When the state agency said we need to think hard about this, we had to give some heed to their thought process," Cummins said. "We understand the state is in a situation just like us. There are no hard feelings. It's been a good conversation with DESE, and they understand 100% what our concern is with students."

Sticking with it

The other three districts are sticking with the county policy despite disapproval from the state. The county's policy has also become a potential liability for athletic contests between schools — last week, Seneca canceled the football team's game in McDonald County because some team members in close-contact quarantine were not eligible to play under the McDonald County standards.

The reason for sticking by their guns is because of the value of in-person instruction, offricials say.

"We know when kids go for virtual learning, it's not the same," Mitchell , the East Newton superintendent, said. "The environment isn't as good. Kids who struggle at school struggle even more at home. And parents do their best, but they are not trained to do this."

Missouri has left education decisions in the hands of local control, without enacting any statewide standards. Gov. Mike Parson said the reason for that is because of the state's large variance between large urban and small rural schools and because one, set policy would not address all those differing needs effectively.

The Seneca and East Newton districts have toughened up their handling from the Newton County Health Department director's standards by requiring at least two symptom checks during the day and making masks mandatory for close-contact quarantine students.

Districts have also been making adjustments to their plans in order to protect as many students as possible. White, at Diamond, said with the help of teachers and a supportive Board of Education they have been able to further increase social distancing and mask wearing.

"We don't want to be in a situation where kids are sent home," White said. "We're doing everything we can to prevent that."

Watching the numbers

All of the superintendents say they have their eyes on the latest numbers for their districts, and are ready to take more steps if necessary. On Friday, Newton County reported 272 active cases, down from Thursday's 305.

Bergner, the Newton County Health Department director, also said he is watching the numbers and is ready to revert back to state standards if necessary. But until more close-contact quarantine students have their own positive tests, that shift is unlikely.

"To my knowledge, only two positive cases have come from quarantine, and one of those was from another family member," Bergner said. "If the state comes up with something that proves the data isn't viable, then we can shift back. But I believe in the data we have and believe this is good policy that focuses on what's best for students."

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.