Shawnee Mission Schools Will Require Masks For Elementary Students When Classes Resume
On Monday night, amid growing concerns about the delta variant of the coronavirus, SMSD became the only public school district in northern Johnson County to require at least some students to wear masks upon returning for in-person learning next month.
The Shawnee Mission School District will require elementary students to wear masks at school after the board of education on Monday approved a COVID-19 mitigation plan for the coming school year.
As part of the plan, middle and high school students will be encouraged — but not required — to wear masks.
But with the vote Monday, SMSD became the only public school district in northern Johnson County to require at least some students to wear masks when students return for in-person learning next month.
Superintendent Michelle Hubbard, conducting her first board meeting as SMSD’s leader, laid out the challenge of planning for another school year with the specter of COVID-19 still hanging over staff, students and families.
“None of us have ever experienced anything like this before and schools have had to build the plane while flying it,” she said. “I want to thank our families and students, who have done everything we asked of them, over the past 18 months, from masking to learning at home.”
The vote to approve the plan was 6-1, with At-Large Member Brad Stratton the only board member voting against.
The board’s decision comes with vaccination rates leveling off as new case numbers in Johnson county continue to rise, driven by the more contagious delta variant.
County epidemiologist Elizabeth Holzschuh, speaking to the board Monday, urged the board to keep mask rules in place. She called the delta variant a “game-changer” because of its ability to spread more quickly and carry a heavier viral load, meaning infected individuals can spread more viral particles.
“This is not where we were a year ago,” Holzschuh said. “If you take masks away at school levels, you will see widespread transmission, I’m sure of it. We didn’t see outbreaks [in schools] last year because we masked.”
Holzschuh noted that just this week, 10 children in the same class at a county-sponsored summer camp were diagnosed with COVID-19, prompting that camp to be canceled.
None of the infected students wore masks, Holzschuh said.
“The moment you unmask children and allow Delta to spread, you will see more hospitalizations by law of numbers,” she said, adding that breakthrough infections of vaccinated staff members were also possible in the event of widespread transmission in schools.
“But the number of kids you will have to send home sick or because they have been exposed will be significantly lower if you have kids wear masks.”
Opposition and other districts’ choices
The Johnson County Department of Health and Environment has recommended schools require all unvaccinated persons wear masks inside their buildings this fall, but all other major public school districts in northern Johnson County — Blue Valley, Olathe and USD 232 in De Soto — say they plan to make masks optional for the fall.
Dozens of opponents of mask requirements showed up at Monday’s meeting to urge the board to not impose new mask rules and pointed to other districts’ decisions.
Sean Claycamp, a parent in the SM West area, addressed the board during the public comments portion of the meeting.
“The recommendations [for elementary students to wear masks] are well-intentioned, but unnecessary and misguided,” he said. “It is time to use logic and reason, common sense, and yes, science, in creating policy for this district.”
He pointed out that the district’s enrollment dropped by some 1,500 students last year amid the pandemic, costing the district millions of dollars in state funding.
Continuing mask requirements this coming year, he suggested, could lead to more families leaving the district.
“COVID and other serious illnesses are not going away,” added Sarah Crafton, another parent. “Do we mask forever? Choices to mask should be left to parents’ discretion.”
Current pandemic data
Johnson County’s current percent positivity stands at 7.8%, the highest level reported since January, according to JCDHE. That positivity rate is also higher than it was last September, when the 2020-21 school year began with all students in SMSD learning remotely.
Children under 12 remain ineligible to be vaccinated against COVID-19. According to SMSD officials, most zip codes within the district boundaries have vaccination rates between 20% and 30% for those between the ages of 12 and 17.
Rising case numbers and low vaccination rates among the student-age population motivated the board's decision Monday. The plan the board adopted gives the district the ability to change its mitigation protocol on “short notice.”
“The one thing that could change this now is if our community that has been sitting on the vaccine goes out and gets vaccinated,” Board President Heather Ousley said.