In open letter, nearly 200 doctors urge Blue Valley district to require ‘universal masking’ in schools

Blue Valley

The Blue Valley School District currently says it will make masks optional in schools when kids return for in-person learning later this month. Nearly 200 local doctors have signed an open letter, saying the district should adopt a masking requirement for everyone in school buildings to tamp down spread of the highly contagious Delta variant. File photo.

Nearly 200 doctors have signed an open letter to the Blue Valley School District, urging the district — one of the Kansas City metro’s largest — to change its current policy and require “universal masking” of all students, staff and visitors inside its facilities when the new school year starts later this month. 

Why it matters: The letter is the latest example of the increasingly urgent back-and-forth occurring in school districts across the Kansas City area, which are preparing to return students to school amid a new surge of COVID-19 cases driven by the Delta variant.

Districts, including Kansas City, Mo., Kansas City, Kan. and Liberty, Mo., are requiring masks for all students. But most Johnson County school districts are so far planning to institute optional masking policies.

What the letter says: The letter, signed by nearly 200 local doctors who also say they are parents, argues that with low vaccination rates among young people and “weak mitigation measures” across the region, that spread of the Delta variant inside schools is “inevitable” once kids return to class.

To keep kids learning in person, which the doctors say is “preferable” to virtual learning, a universal masking policy should be adopted, the letter contends.

“There is no doubt that masks work to curb the spread of disease,” the letter states. “Masks are a simple, cheap, and life-saving intervention … The consistent and appropriate use of masks last school year allowed more than 20,000 Blue Valley students to safely return to in-person instruction.”

An accompanying online petition calling for Blue Valley to enact a mask requirement had more than 2,270 signatures as of Monday morning.

What the district says: Currently, Blue Valley says it will recommend — but not require — students wear masks when they start returning to school on Wednesday, Aug. 18.

However, the Blue Valley Board of Education does have another regularly scheduled meeting on Monday, Aug. 9, where any change to the district’s COVID-19 plan could be discussed and possibly enacted.

On Monday, Kaci Brutto, a Blue Valley spokesperson, said the district was aware of the doctors’ letter and said it was possible the board of education could address the district’s “return to learn” plan then, though there is no agenda item about that yet.

Brutto added that district administrators give a presentation each month about the district’s COVID-19 mitigation plans which, in the past, have “included everything from how we are preparing for all students to return to full-time, in-person to masking or vaccinations.”

Larger context: Public health officials worry that with most school-aged children currently not vaccinated against COVID-19, optional mask policies could lead to rapid spread of the virus inside schools.

Currently, children younger than 12 are ineligible to get the vaccine, and the Johnson County Department of Health and Environment says less than 14% of residents 17 and younger have been vaccinated.

The Shawnee Mission School District will require elementary students to wear masks when students in that district return next week.

Meanwhile, the school board in USD 232 in De Soto is set to revisit its COVID-19 plan at its regularly scheduled meeting Monday night. Like Blue Valley, USD 232 is currently set to make masks optional.

On Friday, the Kansas Department of Health and Environment issued guidelines for school reopening, encouraging districts to enact “universal masking” for all students, staff and visitors inside school facilities.

Still, masking rules have prompted vehement pushback from some parents and led to multiple lawsuits last school year against Blue Valley and other Johnson County districts.

At the Shawnee Mission board of education meeting last month, some parents argued that parents should be given the choice of whether to mask their children.