The Blue Valley, Olathe and USD 232 De Soto school districts all held public hearings this week following new parent complaints about the districts’ mask requirements.
Why it matters: This week’s hearings are the latest conflicts over schools’ COVID-19 policies, which have been an ongoing flashpoint in the local response to the pandemic.
A new state law, Senate Bill 40, allows for some district patrons — including students, families and staff — to challenge districts’ COVID-19 restrictions, including requirements that masks be worn on school property at all times.
The law allows for districts to lay out a hearing process to respond to such complaints. So far, boards of education in these three districts have upheld their mask requirements following complaints.
The Shawnee Mission School District is the only northern Johnson County district to say it has so far not received any complaints about its COVID-19 policies.
The parents’ arguments: On Thursday, both Blue Valley and USD 232 hosted public hearings regarding their mask policies, prompted by parents’ complaints.
It was Blue Valley’s third such hearing and USD 232’s second since Senate Bill 40 took effect late last month. (No member of the public attended USD 232’s first hearing.)
Olathe also held its third such hearing on Wednesday. Each of the latest hearings was prompted by a single parent’s complaint.
In each hearing this week, the parents argued, among other things, that the districts’ mask requirements are harming their children’s health and impeding their academic performance.
Emily Carpenter, the mother of three children who attend USD 232 schools, said masks restrict breathing and increase stress levels.
“Every day my daughter gets off the bus, she’s forced to put on her mask. The message goes over the loud speaker to wear their masks properly and they’re reprimanded if they don’t,” she said.
When asked if her daughter had ever been directly reprimanded for not wearing a mask, Carpenter said she had not but is still “enforced to do so.”
Carpenter also argued that USD 232’s mask policy is “illegal” because cloth barrier face masks have not been formally approved by the FDA but only given emergency use authorization during the pandemic.
The districts’ response: The districts this week repeated arguments they’ve made before in arguing these latest complaints should be dismissed.
All three districts made similar points, that:
- The parents have no standing because the districts’ policies went into effect last summer, months before Senate Bill 40 was passed.
- Mask requirements are the “least restrictive” method for allowing students to still attend school in person during the pandemic.
- Individual students and their families can apply for exemptions to wearing masks under the current policies.
USD 232 said at least 16 students districtwide had applied for and received mask exemptions. Olathe officials said more than 100 students had been granted such exemptions.
What’s next: Each district’s hearing was overseen by a hearing officer, who will make a recommendation to each district’s board of education about whether mask policies should be continued.
The boards of education will then vote on whether to abide by the hearing officers’ recommendations.
Following all past hearings in the three districts, the recommendations have been to keep mask requirements in place.
At Thursday’s hearing, Blue Valley’s hearing officer, former Johnson County district judge Kevin Moriarty, said he would recommend to the board of education that Blue Valley’s mask requirement be upheld, following one mother’s complaint.
“We’re so close to the end of the year, and I understand you want things to get back to normal,” Moriarty told the mother Thursday. “But this is the least restrictive policy [the district] has found. You’re saying this isn’t least restrictive for [your] children, but that’s not what the policy is for. The policy is not a one-on-one policy.”
Parents who disagree with whatever boards of education decide can sue in Johnson County District Court, under Senate Bill 40’s rules. So far, court records indicate no such suits have been filed against any local school district.
Johnson County Commissioner Charlotte O’Hara did sue the Blue Valley School District after she was prevented from attending a Senate Bill 40 hearing without a mask, but that suit was dismissed.