USD 232 becomes latest Johnson County school district to change mask rules — here’s what’s new

Johnson County mask rules

USD 232 in De Soto no longer requires masks to be worn inside school buildings. However, there are exceptions, like when social distancing is impossible or when students with medical concerns are present. Photo courtesy USD 232.

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With some exceptions, masks will no longer be required in USD 232 school buildings.

Again facing complaints from parents who have opposed the district’s mask requirement, the USD 232 Board of Education in De Soto on Monday voted 4-2 to rescind the policy.

Instead, the district will now encourage mask-wearing indoors and also make masks optional during outdoors activities.

Board members Bill Fletcher and Rachele Zade voted ‘no’ on the revised mask policy because they preferred mask-wearing be made completely optional, with no exceptions. Board member Rick Amos was absent.

USD 232 joins other public school districts in northern Johnson County in modifying mask rules.

Olathe Public Schools and Blue Valley Schools have also instituted similar policies that no longer mandate masks but encourage they be worn. Both those districts’ policies are in effect this summer and also for the 2021-22 school year.

Meanwhile, the Shawnee Mission School District has introduced a revised mask policy for summer school.

SMSD will still require students and staff do wear masks indoors this summer. But the district now says mask-wearing outside is optional and that masks can also be taken off during “high exertion” activities indoors.

What USD 232’s new policy says

Superintendent Frank Harwood said the district may need to require mask-wearing in certain situations, like when social distancing cannot occur.

Here’s what the USD 232 school board adopted Monday:

Social Distancing — Appropriate distancing is encouraged when possible. If, due to the activity or venue, appropriate distancing on a regular basis cannot be maintained, barrier face masks may be required. This will be especially true if it is known that the participants are not vaccinated.

Masks — The wearing of barrier face masks is encouraged while inside USD 232 buildings.  When outdoors, barrier face masks are optional. Barrier face masks are strongly encouraged for anyone who is not fully vaccinated whenever appropriate distancing cannot be maintained. Barrier face masks may be required in some indoor settings.

Hand Hygiene — Individuals are encouraged to wash hands or use hand sanitizer  frequently. Hands should be washed or sanitized before and after using shared supplies.

Health Screenings — Individuals are encouraged to self-monitor for symptoms of illness. Individuals who are ill should stay home.

Exclusions — The most recent guidance from the Johnson County Department of Health and Environment will be used for exclusion of individuals or groups recommended for quarantine and isolation.

Notifications — Parents and employees will continue to be notified if they or their children have been exposed (low, moderate or high risk exposure).

Cleaning and Sanitation — In spaces that are regularly  occupied, enhanced cleaning and maintenance protocols will continue to be used.

Ventilation — Increased outdoor air will continue to be used as a mitigation strategy. The activities taking place in each space in a building will help determine the amount of fresh outside air utilized.

Rentals — Groups that rent USD 232 facilities will be expected to follow relevant state, county and local mitigation protocols. Capacity guidelines may be limited depending on the activity.

Superintendent Frank Harwood said USD 232 will still initially require masks to be worn for the district’s summer school program, which started Tuesday.

The priority, he said, is to keep “medically fragile” students safe during but that mask rules may be relaxed as the summer goes along.

Harwood said the board cannot rule out the possibility that the district may need to require universal masking at some point next year. However, current COVID-19 case trends in Johnson County show this to be unlikely, he said.

Frustrations from mask policy opponents

More than a dozen people who identified themselves as USD 232 parents attended the school board meeting on Monday to share their opposition toward the district’s mask requirement.

Monday’s board meeting was interrupted by people in attendance identifying themselves as parents who raised their voices in frustration and confusion with the new policy.

Seven formally gave public comment, all in favor of removing the district’s mask requirement entirely.

Some held signs at the meeting with messages like, “Stop the MASKerade” and, “Unmasked Unmuzzled Unvaxxed Unafraid.”

Emily Carpenter, a candidate for USD 232 school board and mother of three students in the district, held a sign that read “Stop hurting our children.”

Those who spoke during public comments cited concerns for the academic well-being and social and emotional wellness of students who tire of wearing masks.

“Children should not be treated as if they have a contagious disease when they are perfectly healthy,” said Abby Reichle, a mother of two elementary students in the district.

“I do not want you making medical decisions for my children,” Abby Reichle, a mother of two elementary students in the district. “Children should not be treated as if they have a contagious disease when they are perfectly healthy.

“My medical doctor was highly concerned about the learning gaps that were experienced this year for the kids. So we can pat ourselves on the back all we want and say we’ve done our best, but I really don’t think that we have, and I’m really tired of the excuse ‘because of COVID,” she added.

Fletcher, one of the board members who voted against the revised policy, took issue with some the comments.

He expressed his frustration that the parents have blamed the school board for trying to keep students safe this past school year.

“I’m really disappointed; we’re not doctors up here,” he said. “I fought all year to keep the children in school. Every one of you know that. Back in September, I didn’t hear anything about this. We got through this school year, no children died.

“I understand where you’re coming from, but I had to protect all the children in this district,” he added.

What this means for Senate Bill 40

During the brief recess after the board’s vote, Harwood confirmed that the change in district policy regarding masks and other COVID-19 mitigation protocols could potentially expose the district to more complaints filed under Senate Bill 40.

That state law enacted earlier this year allows students, faculty and families of students to file complaints with local school boards if they feel aggrieved by any district action taken in response to the COVID-19 pandemic.

Previously, USD 232 was operating under policies in place since July 2020 as part of the district’s Coming Back Together plan.

Because that prior plan had been in effect for nearly a year, the district had been able to argue that complaints filed under SB 40 were not timely because they came months after the policy took effect.