At a packed marathon meeting, Olathe approves COVID mask mandate for all schools

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After an hours-long discussion punctuated by shouting parents, the Olathe school board on Thursday approved a mask mandate for all grade levels, going beyond a county order that only required masks in elementary schools.

At the packed meeting, where dozens of parents argued for and against masks, the board voted 4-2, approving a universal mask mandate for students and staff when classes begin later this month.

Board members agreed to revisit the mandate in October. Officials continually warned the rowdy crowd to stop yelling over speakers, leading to several interruptions and warnings that residents would be removed from the meeting.

Earlier on Thursday, as the delta variant causes new COVID-19 cases to skyrocket, the Johnson County Board of Commissioners had voted 5-2 to mandate masks inside public and private schools with students as old as sixth grade. Middle schools with sixth-graders also have to require masks, unless sixth-graders are separated from higher grades throughout the school day.

That meeting soon led to a flurry of decisions among Johnson County school districts.

Blue Valley officials, who had earlier made masks optional, announced Thursday that they would mandate masks in both elementary and middle schools, but only strongly recommend them in high schools.

The Shawnee Mission school board voted to mandate masks for all students and employees in all grade levels, altering an earlier decision that required masks only in elementary schools.

On Monday, the De Soto district became the first Johnson County district to approve a universal mask mandate.

In Olathe, district officials had previously said that masks were optional, and only strongly recommended them.

At Thursday’s meeting, several Olathe school board members not only pushed for masks for younger students, who aren’t eligible for the COVID vaccine, but said they were concerned about leaving masks optional in high schools. In Johnson County, only 40% of children ages 12 to 17 are fully vaccinated.

Elizabeth Holzschuh, director of epidemiology for the county health department, told the board that she expects outbreaks in high schools without mandates this fall. She also highlighted that masked students could avoid being quarantined after a COVID-19 exposure in many circumstances.

School board member Kristin Schultz made the motion to extend the mask mandate to all K-12 schools, saying she worried about high schoolers being pulled out of school to quarantine.

“It is our responsibility to see to it that there is uninterrupted learning service provided to the children of our district,” she said.

Board member Brad Boyd agreed and said, “I believe masking our high schoolers is the best way to stop that interruption of learning, and to keep our kids in athletics and activities.”

Members LeEtta Felter and Brian Geary voted against the motion, arguing that the district should not go beyond the county’s health order.

During the three-hour-long discussion, several parents fought against any mandates for their children, arguing that they should have the personal freedom to choose whether to wear masks.

Health officials emphasize that universal masking, along with social distancing, testing and other COVID-19 mitigation strategies, helped prevent widespread transmission of the virus in schools last year.

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and the American Academy of Pediatrics both are urging universal masking in schools this fall.

Coronavirus cases are skyrocketing throughout the metro, including among children, and hospitals are increasingly strained. On Thursday, the county’s positivity rate — the number of positive tests in the past 14 days — was 8.7%, up from 1.5% in early June.

At Thursday’s county board meeting, Health Officer Joseph LeMaster said that if this were last summer, the current infection rate would have led to calls for a return to remote learning. But now district officials say that’s not an option after the state Legislature placed restrictions on public schools’ use of remote instruction, allowing schools to only offer up to 40 hours of remote learning to any student enrolled in the district.

After the county board agreed to mandate masks for younger students in schools, the county’s legal counsel told The Star that schools might be able to enact their own mask policies that are stricter or more lenient than the order the county approved. But they left the legality of such action up to the school districts’ discretion, as questions remain due to a recent ruling by a Johnson County judge.

Senate Bill 40, which rewrote Kansas’ emergency management laws, allowed residents to sue over public health measures and limited health officials’ ability to issue pandemic restrictions. A Johnson County judge declared the law unconstitutional, and it could be months before the Kansas Supreme Court issues a final ruling on the matter.

Olathe Superintendent Brent Yeager said that legal counsel guided the district “on unequivocal terms” to follow the county health order.

On the Missouri side of the Kansas City metro, several districts have decided to mandate masks for all grades, including Kansas City Public Schools, as well as the Lee’s Summit, Liberty, North Kansas City, Center and Park Hill districts.

Johnson County has not imposed a countywide mask mandate.

Kansas City’s indoor mask mandate went into effect Monday. Jackson County announced Wednesday it plans to reinstate its mask order, effective next Monday. Officials in both Platte and Wyandotte counties were scheduled to consider mask mandates at meetings Thursday night.

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