SPRINGFIELD, Mo. – A school safety requirement might cause a drop in attendance. When Springfield Public Schools announced it will require masking, Ashlee Merriweather started looking into other options for her 8-year-old daughter.

“It is a very controversial subject,” Merriweather said. “But, also at the same time, I know to some extent there a lot of people that think a little differently than what is always put out there. A lot of people are kind of scared to speak up on it.”

Merriweather’s story begins in July. It was the night before Gracie’s first day of summer school.

“We get a text message saying that it requires them to wear masks,” Merriweather said. “I’m sure they have reasons for why they have to do it, but it’s one of those things that’s keeping us from wanting to send our kids to SPS.”

She says she doesn’t deny COVID-19 and has friends who have lost their parents to the disease.

“However, the things that I don’t necessarily agree with are the mandates that give parents no choice,” Merriweather said. “I believe parents should have a choice in everything their children are mandated to do within the schools. There definitely should be more conversations. I don’t believe that parents get any type of input really to make that happen.”

Merriweather is looking into homeschooling and other learning styles this year.

“Unless we can make a change and I don’t know if that’s going to happen,” Merriweather said.

The chances of that could be slim with the area’s low vaccination rate and the delta variant surging. The director of health services at SPS, Jean Grabeel, weighed in.

“We know that masking works,” Grabeel said. “It’s an important step in the slowing of the spread. What we found last year is when we had the masking requirement, kids were fine with it. Kids did a really good job with wearing their masks. They don’t have to wear them while they’re eating or in physical education or at recess. They do have breaks from wearing their masks, but while they’re in the classroom, they’ve got their masks on.”

Grabeel says the district’s decision was recommended by the CDC and Springfield’s hospitals.

“Coming from a health perspective, it really is the right thing to do,” Grabeel said. “We know that masking is an effective measure to use, especially when you think about bringing groups of children in a school setting. They’re in a close setting, and that’s an easy space for things to get transmitted. If we take all of these other precautions, that helps slow the spread. Again, it helps keep kids in school full-time. That’s our goal, to educate and to do it safely.”

Along with masking this fall, social distancing and hand washing will be encouraged.

“We want to make sure that our kids can attend school five days a week,” Grabeel said. “They didn’t last year at the beginning of the school year. We want to do it in a safe manner. To do it in a safe manner is why we’ve implemented these guidelines.”

Grabeel says these guidelines could change at some point, but not without the Springfield-Greene County Health Department’s support.

“We work very closely with the Springfield-Greene County Health Department,” Grabeel said. “As vaccination rates go up, as cases go down and hospitalization rates go down, we’ll be working with them to determine whether or not and when we can reduce that requirement.”

SPS Superintendent Dr. Grenita Lathan also chimed in.

“I want to reassure parents that their children’s safety is at the forefront of all my decisions and all my team’s decisions,” Lathan said. “At this time it’s best for all of us, students and staff, to wear a mask. I can assure our parents that our outstanding principals and teachers are ready to receive our students.

Lathan reiterated Grabeel’s point: change is possible.

“We are continuing to monitor the health conditions in our community,” Lathan said. “When we are able to safely remove our masks, we will do so. It’s not like ‘O.K. we are just going to keep them until.’ We are constantly looking at different reports, participating in virtual calls and also face-to-face meetings to get the latest information on our health situation.”