Less than a month before the start of the new school year, as COVID-19 cases are surging and hospitals are turning away patients, few Kansas City area districts are heeding expert advice on opening classrooms safely.
National and local health officials urge them to at least require unvaccinated students and staff to wear masks, worried that outbreaks could lead to more school closures. The highly contagious delta variant combined with students returning to school unmasked is a “recipe for disaster,” Dr. Angela Myers, division director of infectious diseases at Children’s Mercy, told reporters this past week.
But so far, only Kansas City Public Schools and the Kansas City, Kansas, district have said they plan to follow that guidance. The rest of the districts in the region have either made masks optional or are still undecided.
Health officials say masks are a critical tool — alongside social distancing, cleaning and regular testing — in keeping classrooms open.
“Last year, we were able to keep our schools open,” said Sanmi Areola, Johnson County health director. “We were able to do that because the schools were working with us. We had children physically distanced. We had children wearing masks. When we found cases, we jumped in immediately to isolate and do contact tracing. Because of that, we were able to keep our schools open.”
But vaccine hesitancy and stronger opposition to mandates are complicating the task ahead for districts as they determine how to safely start the school year.
For now, children under the age of 12 are not eligible for the vaccine, and most area teenagers are still unvaccinated. Children’s Mercy suggests there should be universal masking in schools where vaccination rates are lower than 70% — meaning the entire region. The American Academy of Pediatrics also has recommended universal masking.
“Zero percent of elementary school children have been vaccinated,” Ryan Zimmerman, who has a high-risk 9-year-old in the Olathe district, said at a Johnson County commission meeting this past week. “Literally nothing has changed over the last year. You’re going back to the exact same environment but now everybody is just like, ‘Well, good luck.’”
But many things have changed. Governments and health departments this spring shifted to recommendations instead of pandemic orders. State lawmakers have pushed to restrict the ability of local health officials to unilaterally issue COVID-19 orders. Several teachers and employees left districts they felt were not prioritizing their safety this past year. With everyone feeling COVID-19 fatigue, districts are questioning whether they can enforce mandates.
And parents are emboldened, this past spring filing several lawsuits against districts over their mask requirements.
Kansas Attorney General Derek Schmidt, a Republican who is running for governor, tweeted in response to the recommendations made by the American Academy of Pediatrics: “No. Just no. These are decisions for parents, not for schools.”
“I think what’s lost in the conversation is everyone has planted a flag on one side or the other,” said Overland Park pediatrician Natasha Burgert. “But really I just want my kids to go to school. I want Kansas City’s kids to go to school.”
In Johnson County, the majority of districts, including Blue Valley and Olathe, have decided to make masks optional, and will only encourage unvaccinated students and staff to wear them. Shawnee Mission will discuss COVID-19 protocols at a meeting on Monday.
In the Missouri suburbs and elsewhere in Wyandotte County, districts have either not yet decided on masks or are only strongly encouraging them.
Districts do plan to implement social distancing, but acknowledge it won’t be possible in many situations with all students back in person. And they will continue to clean, test for the virus and require quarantines when necessary.
For every parent like Zimmerman in the suburbs pushing for masks, there are others arguing that mandates violate their families’ personal freedoms.
“We all know that masking works. However, we all know the challenge to that is about 50% of our parents don’t want their children masked this school year, so we definitely have our work cut out for us to figure out what the best path forward is,” said Shelby Rebeck, director of health services for the Shawnee Mission district, in a conversation with the University of Kansas Health System this past week.
She said that within the district’s boundaries, vaccination rates among eligible children range from roughly 20% to 30%. And that’s in Johnson County, which has the highest overall rate in the metro.
As the delta variant takes hold, districts are grappling with varying, and at times conflicting, guidance from health organizations and local officials.
While the American Academy of Pediatrics recommended universal masking in schools, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention previously recommended masks indoors for unvaccinated students and staff.
“We have not made any decisions about masks for the upcoming school year because we’ve gotten guidance from two different organizations over the past week that were different,” said Marissa Cleaver Wamble, spokeswoman for the Hickman Mills district. “Things are changing so much day to day, and with the delta variant and kids under 12 not able to be vaccinated, we’re going to stay vigilant and make any changes we need to.”
Districts also are weighing how they could realistically enforce mask-wearing, and whether they should ask families to disclose vaccination status.
“As a nurse, I know that is the safest thing for our kids and probably the best way to keep everybody in school,” Rebeck said of universal masking. “But do I put that on our teachers and our principals and our school nurses and the people who have to police that in the building knowing that 50% of our district does not want that? I’m not sure. Those people are in those schools to educate and to kind of put them as the police of masking, I don’t know that that’s the right thing either.”
Masks a flashpoint
Jason Anderson has an 11-year-old son, just under the cutoff for COVID-19 vaccine eligibility.
The single father worries about sending his son into a Blue Valley school where masks won’t be required and where social distancing is often too difficult to enforce — especially now that his son’s grandfather is hospitalized and preparing for chemotherapy.
“My father was admitted to the ICU 10 days ago. When he discharges, it’s more likely than not that he won’t be able to live independently,” Anderson said. “He will become a member of our household. So how do we go about minimizing the risk that’s out there for him? I’m still processing the implications.”
Anderson spoke at the Blue Valley school board meeting this past week, to share his concerns that his son could be exposed to the virus at school and take it home to his sick grandfather. He was one of the few who spoke in favor of stricter COVID-19 protocols before the district decided that it would not mandate masks.
“We all have different perspectives on risk: What is risky, what is not, how much risk we’re willing to accept. That’s fine. But when those decisions affect the risks of others, we are stealing safety from others for personal benefit,” he said.
Several other parents argued against a mandate, saying that requiring their children to wear masks at school all day would impede learning and make them uncomfortable. They argued for the personal choice to send their child to school with a mask or not.
Michelle Mitchell, a mother of two students at Blue Valley Northwest, said her children have already paid a “dear price” during the pandemic. Her son is an incoming senior, she said, and already missed out on much of his high school experience.
She argued that it’s unfair for her children to be required to wear masks in school, when Johnson County is not mandating them elsewhere.
“There’s no mask mandate in the county,” she said. “We’re out at baseball practice, at soccer practice, in the Sam’s Club. We’re hanging out with families, going to parties — no masks. But then our healthy adolescent children have to wear masks in school?”
A Johnson County judge declared unconstitutional a new Kansas law that had allowed “aggrieved” residents to mount fast-track lawsuits over mandates — and several of them did, although judges consistently ruled in favor of school districts.
Schmidt, who advised the GOP-controlled Legislature as it drafted the law, is appealing the ruling.
Protests have picked up again this summer as health officials warn that COVID-19 cases are spiking.
With an influx of COVID-19 patients, area hospitals have had to turn down transfer patients, setting up a potential crisis, hospital officials said.
“When trouble comes, mask up. And right now trouble’s here with the delta virus,” Steve Stites, chief medical officer at the University of Kansas Health System, said Friday.
Areola said that in Johnson County, many new cases are hitting children, with some outbreaks popping up at summer camps and day cares.
“I have not heard of a single district that does not plan to be in session, students in their seats,” said David Luther, spokesman for the Missouri Association of School Administrators. “But I think you’re going to find in those areas where we are seeing the most heavy COVID instances, they’re probably going to be looking at social distancing, pushing hand washing.
“Masks will be another matter entirely, and that will vary by district.”
What will schools look like?
What your child’s classroom will look like depends on where you live.
Kansas City Public Schools, for example, is considering a more cautious approach to reopening this year, after remaining online for much of the past school year. Sara Williams, COVID-19 coordinator for the district, said Wednesday that she will likely recommend a universal mask mandate, regardless of vaccination status, when school begins next month.
Such measures should lead to fewer quarantines and interruptions to the school year, health officials said. Under CDC guidelines, if students are more than three feet apart and wearing masks, they would likely be allowed to stay in class if they are exposed to the virus.
But suburban districts, which generally have faced more public pressure to end mandates, have so far decided against requiring universal masking. In Johnson County, Blue Valley, Olathe, De Soto and Gardner-Edgerton have made masks optional. The Spring Hill and Shawnee Mission school boards will discuss the matter at their Monday meetings.
In Missouri, several districts — Center, Platte County, Raymore-Peculiar and Raytown — have decided against requiring masks, and will only strongly encourage them for the unvaccianted.
Like Hickman Mills, several others remain undecided, including Fort Osage, Independence, Lee’s Summit and Park Hill.
Students should expect to be required to wear masks on school buses, though, regardless of a district’s policy, per an order by the CDC.
School districts do not have the authority to mandate COVID-19 vaccines. And whether schools will ask families to voluntarily disclose vaccination status also depends on the district.
Williams said the Kansas City district will ask families to provide a copy of their vaccination card. Vaccinated students could be exempt from quarantining, depending on the circumstances.
Children’s Mercy recommends that districts ask for voluntary submission of vaccination records, to help inform policies on masking, physical distancing practices, contact tracing, plus isolation and quarantine rules.
Other districts, including Blue Valley, North Kansas City and Lee’s Summit, have said they will do no such thing.
District officials agree on the importance of three feet of social distancing in classrooms but acknowledged that will only be possible in certain settings.
And all of the districts plan to keep up with the rigorous cleaning schedules they put in place last year, as well as require hand-washing and other protocols in to prevent the spread of the virus.
Schools will continue to work with local health departments to regularly test students and staff for the virus. Williams said Kansas City Public Schools will ask parents to opt into a randomized testing program.
And all of the district’s requirements are subject to change at any time, officials said, as they continue to monitor cases.
Districts and health officials agree that last year, all of the strategies combined helped slow transmission in schools. But some worry that with mandatory mask-wearing taken out of the equation, the other tactics will fall short.
“If even one child has to die or requires hospitalization, this is something that could have been prevented by masking,” said Dr. Johanna Finkel, who has three children under the age of 12 in the Blue Valley school district.
“Instead of watching the train wreck coming, we can do something to stop it now.”
The Star’s Katie Moore and Lisa Gutierrez contributed to this report.