SMSD adopts COVID-19 plan for coming school year, including mask rule for elementary students

Shawnee Mission mask case

The Shawnee Mission School District voted Monday night to require elementary students to wear masks at school. Middle and high school students will be encouraged — but not required — to wear masks. This makes SMSD 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. Above, elementary students wearing masks at school in SMSD last winter. File photo.

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 if they are not vaccinated, and some other mitigation protocols that governed last school year will be rolled back.

But with the vote Monday, SMSD will be 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, participating in 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 as new case numbers driven by the more contagious Delta variant continue to rise in Johnson County at the same time that vaccination rates have leveled off.

County epidemiologist Elizabeth Holzschuh, speaking to the board Monday, urged the board to keep mask rules in place, calling the Delta variant a “game changer” with 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 were wearing 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 if there was 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

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Elementary students in the Shawnee Mission School District will be required to wear masks in school this coming year. Many of the same mitigation protocols that were in place last year, like physical distancing and regular sanitization, will remain in place for younger kids, too. Above, SMSD elementary students in school last winter. File photo.

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 who is running for SMSD school board in November, 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, among other things, 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.

Another parent, Sarah Crafton, called last year “scary, depressing and sad” for many kids forced to learn at home for long stretches or at school with masking and social distancing rules.

“When will it end? COVID and other serious illnesses are not going away,” she said. “Do we mask forever? Choices to mask should be left to parents’ discretion.”

Current pandemic data

Several dozen people gathered outside the SMSD Center for Academic Achievement on Monday to urge the board against instituting mask requirements for the coming school year. Photo credit Leah Wankum.

Johnson County’s current percent positivity stands at 7.8%, its highest level since January, according to JCDHE, and higher than early September of last year when the 2020-21 school year began in SMSD with all students 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 of 12- to 17-year-olds of between 20% and 30%.

The twin factors of rising case numbers and low vaccination rates among the student-age population motivated board members’ decision Monday.

The plan adopted Monday 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.

Here are some other key questions about SMSD’s COVID-19 mitigation plan adopted Monday and how it will impact students and staff:

Who has to wear masks?

  • All elementary students will be required to wear masks at schools.
  • Middle and high school students will only be encouraged to wear masks.
  • In addition, all bus riders must wear masks regardless of grade level.
  • Students will not be required to wear masks during outdoor activities at school.
  • Staff in elementary schools will not be required to wear a mask if they can show proof of vaccination.
  • Medical exemptions from masks would also still be available for students, same as last year.

Is SMSD requiring vaccinations for eligible students and/or staff?

  • No, but the district is recommending that all eligible individuals be vaccinated.
  • That includes anyone 12 and older, so all staff members and most middle and high school students.
  • SMSD plans to offer vaccine clinics in conjunction with local health systems for “students, staff and the community.”

What happens if a student tests positive or is exposed to COVID-19?

  • Any student who tests positive for COVID-19 will have to quarantine at home for at least 10 days and learn remotely.
  • Students showing symptoms of “COVID-like illness” will also be asked to quarantine for 10 days or until they can show proof of an alternative diagnosis or negative COVID-19 test.
  • Students who may have been exposed to a positive case but who can show proof of vaccination will not be required to quarantine at home.
  • The district says it will report positive cases to JCDHE, which will provide further instructions for contact tracing.

Are students still going to have to physically distance at school?

  • Elementary schools will still try to keep students at least 3 feet apart inside as much as possible.
  • Elementary students will also have assigned seats at breakfast and lunch in order to try and limit spread of the virus in large group settings.
  • Middle and high school students will no longer have limits on physical distancing or group size activities.

Will students still have to go to school in ‘cohorts?’

  • This was a COVID-19 mitigation strategy used last year mainly in middle and high schools, and SMSD says this coming school year, cohorting will no longer be used at the secondary level.
  • Cohorting may occur in elementary grades “to the extent possible.”

Will any students have to learn remotely?

  • No, because a Kansas law signed this spring put limits on using remote learning for all students (like how SMSD began last school year).
  • SMSD also does not operate an accredited virtual academy, so students want a totally remote learning option will have to seek it outside the district, according to SMSD’s plan.
  • All students will continue to have one-to-one devices and access to wireless hotspots to take home if they need to isolate temporarily.

What about extracurricular activities, like sports and performing arts?

  • Masks for unvaccinated participants in athletics will be “strongly recommended” but not required to compete.
  • “Surveillance testing” of the disease will be an option for athletes and coaches.
  • The district says it “reserves the right” to require masks during sporting competitions and activities “at any point” throughout the school year.
  • For performing arts, SMSD strongly recommends masks be worn “when singing or speaking” and bell covers are advised for wind and brass instruments.
  • The district recommends 3 feet of physical distance be maintained during rehearsals and that practices occur outside when possible.

Will these COVID-19 protocols change?

  • The plan approved by the board Monday does not have an explicit end date.
  • The district also says its mitigation plans “may change with short notice” based on changing COVID-19 conditions and case numbers in Johnson County.