Published August 25th, 2021 at 11:10 AM
TOPEKA, Kansas — Two-thirds of elected school boards responsible for the 25 largest public school districts in Kansas imposed some form of an indoor masking mandate in response to the spread of COVID-19.
Districts implementing a face-covering requirement — including Olathe, Shawnee Mission, Kansas City, Blue Valley, Topeka, Lawrence, DeSoto, Manhattan and Salina — educate 240,000 students. The rise of a preference for masks parallel the rise of the delta variant of COVID-19 and pleas from health care workers and educators for people to get vaccinated and wear masks.
“We are now facing a public health crisis in Johnson County,” said Heather King, an Overland Park nurse with a 9-year-old daughter who is accepting of masks. “Please listen to the hundreds of local MDs and hundreds more on the national level when they warn you of the dangers of this change in COVID. Why would all the doctors and scientists lie or exaggerate? What would they possibly gain?”
Mask edicts handed down in public schools aren’t universally accepted. Parents in two districts — Blue Valley and Olathe, both in Johnson County — filed lawsuits challenging legality of the mandates.
The roster of school boards choosing to leave wearing of face coverings merely an option features the southwest Kansas communities of Garden City, Liberal and Dodge City and the suburban Wichita districts of Andover, Derby, Goddard and Maize.
The Spring Hill district on the Johnson and Miami county border is allowing parents, rather than doctors, sign waivers to allow their children to attend classes in school without masks.
“If we mandate masks today, our children will wear masks forever,” said Spring Hill resident Emily Coleman. “For what? For a disease that children are statistically untouched by? Maybe its really for a government that wants to tax us all into poverty.”
More than 200 Kansas children have been hospitalized for COVID-19 since the start of the pandemic, and two Kansas children have died from the virus. As of Monday, there were 15 infected children hospitalized statewide.
The Johnson County Commission issued an order requiring students in pre-K through sixth grade in private and public schools to wear a face covering in an attempt to mitigate spread of COVID-19. The commission meeting attracted dozens of people opposed to the requirement, as well as individuals who didn’t think elected officials went far enough.
“All of us, our entire community, parents and grandparents, we want our kids back in school and we want in-class learning,” said Ed Eilert, chairman of the county commission.
Mask opponent Haley Williams told commissioners they should stand against an ineffective, dangerous and asinine requirement that children cover their mouth and nose.
“This is America,” she said. “This is not a monarchy or a dictatorship, so stop acting like tyrants.”
School boards serving Wichita and Maize public schools consume the same public health advisories about use of masks in the face of COVID-19, but reached different conclusions about protecting children in Sedgwick County at this stage of the pandemic.
On Monday, the state’s largest school district will start requiring employees and students ages 3 and up to wear a mask indoors. The Wichita school board responded to spread of the fast-moving variant of COVID-19 by unanimously abandoning a recommendation that people voluntarily deploy masks.
“Student safety always has and will continue to be of paramount importance to the Wichita public schools,” said superintendent Alicia Thompson.
The Maize school board northwest of Wichita dropped a rigorous testing scheme but retained a policy of making face coverings optional for teachers, staff and students. So few students wore a mask during the first week of classes the district abandoned a labor-intensive program of testing unmasked people known to have been within six feet of someone testing positive for COVID-19.
Chad Higgins, superintendent in Maize, pleaded with parents to get as many of the district’s students vaccinated and to instruct them to wear a mask at school.
“For each student, the best opportunity to stay in school is to wear a face mask daily or, for those ages 12 and older, to get their COVID vaccination,” he said.
The Kansas Department of Health and Environment reported Sedgwick County has the second-highest incidence of COVID-19 infection at 64,000 among the state’s 105 counties. It trailed only Johnson County by about 4,000 cases. However, Sedgwick County documented 838 deaths due to the coronavirus, slightly ahead of 816 reported for Johnson County since early 2021.
The Kansas Legislature anticipated the potential rise of COVID-19 during the 2021-2022 academic year and the reality that some school districts might respond by moving instruction from a fully in-person environment to exclusively an online setting.
The House and Senate adopted and the governor signed a bill declaring that no school district would be able to provide or offer more than 40 hours of remote learning to any student enrolled in that school district. Exceptions in the law allow local school boards to exceed that limit for students who cannot reasonably attend in person due to illness, injury or extraordinary circumstance.
In addition, the Kansas State Board of Education can enable a school district to provide remote learning in excess of 40 hours due to widespread property damage caused by a disaster. If a student attended more than 240 hours of remote instruction, the state would compensate the district with no more than $5,000 in annual aid.
“The Legislature was saying they didn’t like the hybrid, virtual option,” said Mark Tallman, who works for the Kansas Association of School Boards.
Tallman said the practical result of the law was that school districts anticipating a student would benefit from a heavy dose of remote instruction should enroll in an virtual school to receive that form of education.
However, a massive outbreak of COVID-19 in a school district could prompt shifts in instruction to online formats as occurred in 2021 at outset of the pandemic. It’s not clear how the Legislature would respond if dozens of school districts responsible for hundreds of thousands of students pulled the plug on in-person teaching.
“Masks will help us reduce outbreaks and keep kids in school,” said Janee Hanzlick, a member of the Johnson County Commission. “Otherwise, we’re going to have to shut down classes.”
Gov. Laura Kelly answered the ongoing spread of the delta variant by releasing a pair of advertisements encouraging students and their families to get a COVID-19 vaccine, wear masks and be tested regularly.
She said record numbers of children were catching the virus and being hospitalized. National statistics released by the governor indicated 99% of COVID-19 deaths and more than 97% of COVID-19 hospitalizations have been among people who were not vaccinated.
“As we head back to school, it’s critical that all Kansas students, teachers and staff wear masks, get tested regularly and, if you’re 12 or older, get vaccinated. That’s how we keep our kids safe and in the classroom,” she said.
The first spot, “Kids Spread Germs,” raises points about how contagious and serious the delta variant is and urges parents to follow the basics to counter COVID-19.
The second ad, “Your Decision,” offers encouragement for college students over the age of 18 to get information they need to make decisions about acquiring a free and safe vaccine for COVID-19.
Just 56.3% of eligible Kansans are fully vaccinated, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
Tim Carpenter covers the Capitol for the Kansas Reflector, a nonprofit news operation covering Kansas state government and politics as part of States Newsroom.