School district is first in Johnson County to mandate masks for all as COVID spikes

·3 min read

The De Soto school district is now the first in Johnson County to mandate masks for everyone when school starts next week as COVID-19 cases continue to skyrocket.

And it’s so far the second district in the county to implement any mask requirement, following Shawnee Mission, which last week decided to mandate masks for elementary students because they are not yet eligible to be vaccinated. The rest of the districts have so far made masks optional, despite the Johnson County health department recommending that masks be required for unvaccinated students and staff.

The De Soto school board voted 4-3 on Monday to require face masks for everyone inside school buildings, reversing a July 12 decision that made masks optional. The previous decision was made before the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention issued new guidance that all students and staff wear masks in school, regardless of vaccination status.

The divided school board debated whether to follow health officials’ evolving guidance on how to open school safely, and voiced frustration that mitigation decisions have fallen on school officials, rather than health experts.

Johnson County dropped its countywide mask mandate in April. But on Thursday, the Johnson County Board of Commissioners is expected to consider new COVID rules, as well as recommendations for school districts, given the new surge in cases. Kansas City’s new mask mandate went into effect on Monday.

While school districts in the Kansas City metro have previously leaned away from mandates, that is now changing as COVID-19 cases continue to spike, driven by the highly contagious delta variant. Johnson County is returning to infection levels last seen during peaks this past fall and winter.

On Tuesday, the county’s incidence rate — or the number of new cases per 100,000 residents in the past two weeks — was 300. That’s up from a rate of 47 per 100,000 on June 3.

On that same day in June, the county’s positivity rate — the number of positive tests over the past 14 days — was 1.7%. On Monday, it was 8.5%, the highest since January.

Elizabeth Holzschuh, director of epidemiology for the Johnson County Department of Health and Environment, told the school board on Monday that the delta variant “is a different beast” than the coronavirus school officials worked to prevent from spreading last year. She said more cases are spreading among young people and children.

“We rarely shut down a child care center or day care home during our first year of the pandemic,” Holzschuh said. “(This summer) we have had to shut down multiple day cares, multiple camps because of the spread from student to student and student to parent. This virus transmits very, very quickly.”

Many students will return to classrooms, including in De Soto, on Aug. 12.

The Olathe school board will meet Thursday evening and discuss COVID-19 mitigation rules for the new school year. So far, the Gardner-Edgerton, Spring Hill and Blue Valley districts have made masks optional.

For now, vaccines are available only to people 12 and older.

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