Johnson County public schools keep mask rules — and 10 area health leaders support it

SB 40

Kansas City area health officials still recommend that schools require masks be worn inside their buildings, considering that most school-age children are not yet fully vaccinate or eligible to be vaccinated. Above, students wear masks at Rhein Benninghoven Elementary in the Shawnee Mission School District. File photo.

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The Kansas City metro’s top public health officials say schools should continue requiring masks be worn in school buildings.

The joint announcement from the Mid-America Regional Council was signed by the heads of 10 local public health departments, including Johnson County health director Sanmi Areola.

The leaders’ statement comes in the wake of recent changes to masking guidelines by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and at the same time as Johnson County school districts face opposition to mask requirements from some parents.

What the guidance says

Earlier this month, the CDC announced that fully vaccinated people don’t have to wear a mask or physically distance in most circumstances, except where required by law or a business or organization’s own rules.

However, because most school-age children are either not yet eligible to be vaccinated or are not yet fully vaccinated, the CDC recommends that schools continue to require masks until at least the end of the 2020-21 school year.

The local officials’ guidance echoes that.

“These recommendations are consistent with CDC and KDHE guidance,” Areola said. “JCDHE recently sent a letter to the Johnson County school districts encouraging them to continue to control risks for our youngest residents. Since school-age children are not able to receive the vaccine, it is important to continue to minimize their risk of infection by wearing masks. We have been able to keep our schools open and our children safe for the most part. It is important to remember that masks work, no matter what your age is.”

Dr. Rex Archer, director of the Kansas City, Mo., Health Department, said infection control efforts have helped mitigate the spread of COVID-19.

“Schools in our region have been able to maintain low numbers of COVID-19 cases because of masking and distancing practices,” Archer said. “We know that wearing a mask works. Let’s end the school year safely by masking up in our schools.”

Dr. Jennifer Watts, chief emergency management medical officer, with Children’s Mercy Kansas City, said it’s important for children to continue to wear a mask and take other infection control measures until they are fully vaccinated.

Vaccine uptick

Though children are far less likely than adults and the elderly to suffer severe health consequences from COVID-19, they can still become infected and get sick. In some cases, children can face serious complications from the disease and even die.

In Johnson County, about 20% of all recorded cases of COVID-19 hav occurred in people 19 and younger, according to county health data.

Children ages 12 and older can now receive the Pfizer vaccine, and all three COVID-19 vaccines (Pfizer, Moderna and Johnson & Johnson) are available to all people age 18 and older.

Johnson County health officials say the county has seen a surge in vaccinations in the days since the FDA gave emergency-use authorization to the Pfizer vaccine for children ages 12 to 15.

Pushback to mask rules

Some Kansas City area public school districts, including those in Blue Springs and Lee’s Summit in Missouri, ended their mask rules following the CDC’s updated guidance.

But all four public school districts in northern Johnson County say they will continue requiring masks be worn inside their buildings through the end of this school year. (SMSD and USD 232 will also require masks be worn at their upcoming commencement ceremonies this week.)

That comes despite criticism from some parents who say masks are impeding their children’s academic performance and harming their mental and physical health.

A few dozen people gathered at the Shawnee Mission Center for Academic Achievement last Monday to urge the board of education to end the district’s mask rule.

SMSD’s video of that meeting was broadcast on YouTube, but the video-sharing giant took down the video, citing “medical misinformation” stemming from debunked claims about masks some parents during the public comments portion of the meeting.

The video has since been reposted to YouTube with the public comments portion taken out.

Blue Valley, Olathe and USD 232 De Soto schools have all maintained their own mask rules following multiple public hearings in which parents have requested their children not be required to wear masks at school.

The 2020-21 school year in Shawnee Mission ends Thursday, May 27.