Wichita’s anti-mask school board members mask up, but tensions still flare

·7 min read

The three new members of the Wichita Board of Education who derailed last week’s meeting by refusing to wear face coverings in protest of the school district’s indoor mask mandate donned masks Tuesday, allowing the board to hold its first meeting of the year amid a record surge of COVID-19 cases among teachers and students.

The surge — 301 staff members and more than 1,100 students tested positive for COVID-19 last week — resulted in 4,500 students and nearly 650 staff in quarantine as of Friday. Three elementary schools were closed Tuesday because of a COVID-related staffing shortage.

And the school board member who suspended the meeting, Stan Reeser, was re-elected board president, signaling that new anti-mask members are a minority on the board as they push to repeal a mask mandate that has been in place since August.

The board is scheduled to discuss changes to the district’s COVID-19 policies in February at the request of new member Diane Albert. The new members voted for Julie Hedrick for president. The other four members, including Hedrick, voted for Reeser. Hedrick was elected vice president.

The three new board members mostly complied with the mask mandate on Tuesday, wearing masks throughout the midday meeting.

Esau Freeman, with Service Employees International, addresses the USD 259 BOE during a meeting held at at the Alvin E. Morris Administrative Center. (January 18, 2022)
Esau Freeman, with Service Employees International, addresses the USD 259 BOE during a meeting held at at the Alvin E. Morris Administrative Center. (January 18, 2022)

Bond briefly pulled her mask below her nose but pulled it back up after being called out by Esau Freeman, a representative with SEIU Local 513 that represents non-teacher employees who was addressing the board during the public comment session.

“Please continue to get vaccinated, stay masked up, and if someone reminds you that your mask isn’t covering your nose — Ms. Bond — please understand that the rules in the district are if you’re in the buildings, it has to cover your mouth and your nose,” Freeman said.

Bond quickly pulled her mask up to cover her nose.

The exchange signaled a major shift in posture by Bond, who last week refused to put on a mask on the night she was supposed to be sworn in.

Albert, Bond and Stabler were elected in November after being recruited to run by the Sedgwick County Republican Party as part of a nationwide effort to mobilize voters around issues such as mask mandates, mandatory vaccination and critical race theory.

They all attended Tuesday’s makeup meeting in person. They had been offered the option to attend remotely if they didn’t want to follow the policy that requires all visitors to USD 259 buildings to wear a mask.

Masks were also required in the audience and attendees had to provide photo ID to get in.

Speaking for, against masks

Matthew Farenbaugh, who has two children in Wichita schools, was the only anti-mask speaker who got podium time at the meeting.

“There is psychological, emotional and physical effects you are causing to our children by forcing them to wear a mask,” he said. “I’m urging you to unmask our children. It’s not up to the state to decide medical decisions for my children.”

Matthew Farenbaugh addresses the USD 259 BOE during a meeting held at at the Alvin E. Morris Administrative Center. He is the father of two children who attend Wichita Public Schools who does not believe masks should be mandated. (January 18, 2022)
Matthew Farenbaugh addresses the USD 259 BOE during a meeting held at at the Alvin E. Morris Administrative Center. He is the father of two children who attend Wichita Public Schools who does not believe masks should be mandated. (January 18, 2022)

“Amen,” shouted a woman in the audience, where board watchers were seated in socially distanced fashion with six feet of airspace between chairs.

Farenbaugh, who complied with the mask requirement by wearing an American-flag-themed neck gaiter, said he believed he was speaking for the majority of Wichitans.

“I’m not the only person, I’m the only person who could afford to take off work to be here, but I can guarantee you tens of thousands of people stand behind me,” he said. “The vast majority of this community does not want a mask or any kind of mandate for a shot. That’s why we elected three patriots to our school board.”

Several members of the public castigated the new board members for breaking board rules, including Pandora Freeman, a freshman at East High School and Esau Freeman’s daughter.

“You think rules don’t apply to you because you are special,” Freeman said to the new board members. “Well, if you don’t have to follow rules, why should we? Why should we wear a mask? Why can’t we have weapons? Why can’t we use illegal substances? Why can’t we use school computers for personal matters? Why shouldn’t we engage in violence? . . . The same way you seem to feel that COVID is not dangerous, I could say that I don’t think bringing a gun or doing drugs at school is dangerous.

“You may say, ‘Well, COVID might be dangerous, but there’s no proof masks help.’ But that is, again, illogical. I can say that there’s no proof that keeping guns out of schools reduces violence. Both statements are false.”

“You can’t expect students to follow rules, if you constantly break them,” Pandora Freeman said. “If you want change, use the rules to make change. You are not above them.”

‘Blindsided’ by cancellation

Albert said she felt “blindsided” when last week’s meeting was abruptly canceled after the new members’ refusal to wear masks. She said she was at another meeting at North High two hours before the board meeting and it wasn’t an issue.

“I’d let my intentions be known that I did not plan on wearing a mask and I’d stay home if I was sick,” she said. “And I kept to that.”

She said the mask mandate has pulled attention away from important school business.

A large crowd gathered at the Alvin E. Morris Administrative Center for a USD 259 BOE meeting. The meeting was rescheduled when last week three board members did not wear masks. (January 18, 2022)
A large crowd gathered at the Alvin E. Morris Administrative Center for a USD 259 BOE meeting. The meeting was rescheduled when last week three board members did not wear masks. (January 18, 2022)

“I’ve got a massive headache from wearing this (mask) for this meeting,” Albert said. “I can’t see with my glasses, so it’s a massive distraction and we’re about education, so we need to remove the distraction so we can get back to education.”

She said she hopes to get the mask mandate lifted when the policy is reviewed next month at her request.

“If you want to wear a mask, wear one, but for me it’s very distracting for me to sit here and wear one,” she said. “It’s actually quite restrictive for me, so I would like to remove the distractions for . . . students as well.”

At the end of the meeting, Reeser downplayed the mask-or-no-mask rift on the board.

“I’m not entirely convinced it’s a 4-3 vote or a 4-3 split on masks,” Reeser said. “I think you’ll find that the pandemic will speak very loud and clear before we finally have a vote on that. My hope is since we’re all tired of all these safety protocols, my hope is by the time we actually have a mask vote, we could have a 7-0 vote to go back to ‘strongly encourage,’” on mask usage.

“The bottom line is the pandemic is going to have the final say on what direction we take,” Reeser said.

Tensions over school masks

Tensions over the mask mandate spilled out of the board room and into the hallway at the district’s administrative building, formerly Southeast High School, near Lincoln and Edgemoor.

As she left the board meeting, mask opponent Mary Kahrs confronted the Freemans and others in the locker-lined hallway to tell them they were wrong about thinking masks do any good.

But Esau Freeman waved her off dismissively.

“My husband is the Kansas air surgeon . . .” Kahrs started to say when Freeman interrupted and asked, “Where is he? Why isn’t he here?”

“He’s working,” Kahrs responded.

Freeman: “Well, I think you should go do the same thing.”

Kahrs: “You need to have an open mind. You want us to have an open mind, you need to have an open mind.”

Kahrs said she thinks the district stacked the speakers in favor of the mask mandate.

“I’m outraged,” she said. “Every speaker they had, they only let one person come up there to speak against the mask. One. That man that had the flag mask on, he was the only one allowed to speak in defense of abolishing this ridiculous, filthy rag.”

She said she plans to sign up to speak at the next meeting to make that case.

Wendy Johnson, who heads the district’s strategic communications division, said there was no effort to pack the podium with pro-mask advocates.

Speakers on the public agenda, who can address a topic of their choosing as long as it’s in the board’s jurisdiction, are limited to 10 per week. Another 10 can speak on a particular topic if it’s an action item on the board agenda.

Those speaking slots are given on a first-come, first-served basis and this week, the pro-mask advocates simply signed up first, Johnson said.

The final tally on public speakers was eight for masks, one against and one no-show.

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