SMSD would be Johnson County outlier if it adopts plan to require masks for elementary kids

SMSD masks

The Shawnee Mission School District Board of Education will weigh two alternative COVID-19 mitigation plans for the upcoming school year, one of which would require all elementary students to wear masks at school. Children 11 and younger remain ineligible to be vaccinated and county health officials have recommended schools require masks for all unvaccinated individuals. Above, students in class last winter at Rhein Benninghoven Elementary.

The Shawnee Mission School District Board of Education at its regular meeting Monday night will consider two proposed COVID-19 mitigation plans for the upcoming school year, one of which would require all elementary students to wear masks when they return for in-person learning next month.

Why it matters: With new case numbers again rising as vaccination rates level off in Johnson County, 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 Johnson County — including Blue Valley, Olathe and USD 232 in De Soto — have said they plan to make masks optional this coming school year.

Current COVID-19 data: As of Monday, Johnson County’s percent positivity stands at 7.6%, it’s highest level since January, according to JCDHE.

The incidence rate of new cases has also risen rapidly in recent weeks and currently stands at 188 per 100,000 residents.

Children 11 and younger remain ineligible to be vaccinated against COVID-19.

According to JCDHE, less than 10% of Johnson County residents younger than 17 have been vaccinated, suggesting that most students — even in middle and high school — who return to in-person learning next month will not have been vaccinated.

Two proposals: The two proposals the board will consider Monday are nearly identical except when it comes to masks.

One plan calls for strongly recommending masks for unvaccinated individuals at all grade levels.

The other plan would require all elementary students to wear masks indoors while still strongly recommending masks for unvaccinated students in middle and high school.

Under this second proposal, staff working in elementary schools would be able to opt out of wearing masks if they provide proof of vaccination, according to draft plans which will be presented at Monday’s board meeting.

Both proposals would require masks be worn on buses but would not require masks outdoors at schools.

Other mitigation plans: Both plans make a number of other recommendations for mitigating the spread of COVID-19 during the new school year, including:

  • strongly recommending that all eligible individuals get vaccinated,
  • continuing to offer COVID-19 testing for symptomatic individuals and those who have been potentially exposed to the disease,
  • requiring anyone who tests positive for COVID-19 (or is showing symptoms) to stay home from school for at least 10 days,
  • in elementary grades, still maintaining physical distance of at least 3 feet at school when possible and having assigned spots for lunches,
  • and keeping up with regular cleaning and sanitization protocols.

The district’s proposals recommend lifting social distancing requirements for middle and high schoolers and also suggest doing away with secondary cohorting, or having students in middle and high school attend classes with the same group of peers.

The plans also give guidelines for extracurricular activities, including strongly recommending that unvaccinated participants wear masks during sports and that masks be worn during activities like choir and band practice.

Key quote: “As an education community, we believe our shared, primary goal remains to keep schools open so that our children can learn and benefit from interactions from others. We understand that this goal requires the collective effort of our educators, families, public health, and county officials, as well as support from the medical community,” reads a draft of both COVID-19 mitigation plans to be presented to the board.

What happens next: The board is set to vote to accept one of the two plans being presented Monday night.

Students begin returning to in-person learning on Thursday, Aug. 12.

Staff start reporting for professional development, Monday, Aug. 3.