Columbia Public Schools will join the University of Missouri by requiring all students, faculty and staff to wear masks when they return to class in August.


The decision Monday came as the city is examining whether to enact an ordinance mandating that most people wear masks in public or use authority it currently has to require them.


The district will also push the deadline for parents to decide if they will send their children to school or receive online education out for a week, to next Monday.


The Columbia-Boone County Department of Health and Senior Services has been working on a new ordinance after Mayor Brian Treece tweeted Friday that he was asking City Manager John Glascock to write an ordinance "to require masks in all public settings."


The department actually already has the authority to order people to wear masks in public, Assistant Director Scott Clardy said.


The department has been studying the science and how other cities are handling the issue, Clardy said.


Kansas City is requiring people to wear masks as of Monday and that is being extended to all of Jackson County on Wednesday, the Associated Press reported.


"We have been working with the law department all weekend to develop some ordinance language," Clardy said. "Masking is no substitute for social distancing, but we believe masking is better than no social distancing and we believe it is very effective with social distancing."


The context of the discussions is a rapidly increasing number of COVID-19 cases locally and across the state. On Monday, the state Department of Health and Senior Services reported another 468 new coronavirus infections, with at least one new case in 58 of the state’s 117 local heath jurisdictions.


There have been 21,043 coronavirus infections since the first was found in the state in early March.


The Columbia health department reported only one new case Monday, the first time since June 9 that only a single new case was tallied. The average count of new cases last week was almost 11 per day.


In an interview Friday, Clardy said the increase in cases was due in large part to infections found in people under 30 who are not practicing good social distancing. There were 91 active cases in the county on Monday afternoon and 262 people in quarantine because of exposure.


"If people don't start social distancing without us putting some of those restrictions back in place, we are going to see those cases rise," Clardy said. "And as the cases rise, the risks for more deaths is going to increase."


The school district’s decisions to extend the deadline and require masks came after Superintendent Peter Stiepleman on Saturday conducted a webinar with around 500 participants that lasted longer than two hours.


The school district will have to comply if the city passes a mandate for face coverings, Stiepleman said during the webinar.


He had resisted mandated face coverings, he said, because some students with health issues and other special needs may not be able to wear them. Others may associate trauma with the face coverings.


"I would never want to see mask wearing become a disciplinary measure," Stiepleman said.


The district had originally set Tuesday as the deadline for parental decisions. The district had strongly encouraged use of face coverings by students, faculty and staff, when they return, but it wasn’t a requirement.


Several people participating in the webinar said face coverings should be mandatory, with exceptions for certain situations. One of those was Kevin Carnahan, a professor of philosophy and religion at Central Methodist University.


"What we’re dealing with is a virus that kills people," Carnahan said. "The requirement to wear masks saves actual lives. Any argument against requiring masks has to justify the loss of lives."


Mandating masks, with exceptions for those who have special needs, was favored by mother Nicole Eckerson.


"That would make me as a parent feel safe to send my child back — in-seat and in-person," Eckerson said.


Scott Holan, who described himself as a statistician, said he has looked at the data.


"The risk of transmission goes up without masks," Holan said.


Other parents, including Tricia Carr, said the district has to consider all students.


Rising senior Alicia Simmons said requiring face coverings won’t work.


"I know firsthand if we make it mandatory, it’s not going to be easy to enforce," Alicia said. "If you’re going to make it a requirement, you need a comprehensive plan as to enforcement."


Stiepleman repeated that he didn’t want to discipline students, but suggested that encouragement might work.


One participant, who didn’t use her full name, said face coverings can present their own health problems.


Another mother, Angela McNett, said her family feels passionately about requiring face coverings, because the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention has been clear about their benefits.


"I’m really only going to feel safe if my kids are wearing a mask and other kids are, too," McNett said.


Clear face coverings are available for teachers who have students who read lips because of hearing problems, Stiepleman said.


He wants children and adults in schools to wear face coverings, Stiepleman said Saturday before Monday’s decision.


"Every person who wears a mask increases the likelihood we come back the next day," he said, paraphrasing a parent’s point.


The district will provide the face coverings, Stiepleman said Saturday.


The first day of school is Aug. 25.


rmckinney@columbiatribune.com


rkeller@columbiatribune.com