Kids in Missouri are not facing any statewide mandate on COVID-19 vaccines, and the wearing of face coverings will continue to be an entirely local decision.

The Missouri Department of Elementary and Secondary Education, which is overseen by the State Board, met Tuesday to review how these concepts have played out over the last several months and how they can be adjusted for the coming 2021-2022 academic year. The board, chaired by Charlie Shields of St. Joseph, heard from Dr. Tracy Hinds, DESE deputy commissioner. Amid news Monday that the FDA has approved the Pfizer-BioNTech two-dose vaccine for those ages 12 to 15, Shields reflected on how students may end up acquiring it.

“So, you might say, just to reiterate, that is not our decision,” he said. “OK, so there is a process the (Department of) Health and Senior Services has, if they have a committee or a panel or whatever that looks at required vaccinations for attendance at schools, and that will be their decision.”

Hinds explained that all COVID-19 vaccines to date are applied under an FDA “emergency use authorization.” As a general rule, emergency use authorization allows people to voluntarily obtain a given therapy, but they can’t be compelled by anyone to do so. The juncture at which school districts would be empowered — as is the case for the measles, mumps and rubella vaccine, for example — would only arrive when the emergency use authorization becomes a “full FDA approval,” Hinds said.

“Even then, they’ll look at how the COVID vaccine marries with other vaccinations that students are required to have when they enter public school,” she added.

The matter of face coverings is more established, but the state board is similarly not inclined to tell educators on the local level what they must do. Even so, with almost all Missouri school districts expected to abandon the practice of mandatory periods of online education this fall, the continued use of face coverings indoors may become more important, not less.

“We know the pressures that so many school leaders are facing right now from folks in their community, who are really feeling ... that this is the time to ... ‘Let’s just get rid of the masks.’ Let’s go back to ‘normal,’” Hinds said. “We understand the pressure that they’re getting to remove some of those protocols and appreciate them standing strong.”

Dr. Margie Vandeven, DESE commissioner, emphasized this point.

“Just a reminder, that it is of course local control, still,” she said. “We’re not mandating any of this. These are just our recommendations.”

Marcus Clem can be reached at marcus.clem@newspressnow.com. Follow him on Twitter: @NPNowClem

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