USD 232 school board reverses course, approves universal mask rule for upcoming year

After more than four hours of discussion and hearing from a divided group of members of the public as well as a Johnson County public health professional, the USD 232 Board of Education voted 4-3 to approve a universal mask mandate indoors in all district buildings. Above, students at Mill Creek Middle wearing masks last school year. File photo courtesy USD 232.

Three weeks after voting to make masks optional, the USD 232 school board in De Soto reversed course Monday night, approving a new universal mask policy for all students and staff.

De Soto is the first public school district in northern Johnson County that will require all students, staff and visitors to wear masks when in-person learning begins later this month.

After more than four hours of discussion Monday, hearing from the county’s epidemiologist as well as taking public comments that were nearly split down the middle in support and opposition to a mask rule, the board of education voted 4-3 to approve a universal mask mandate indoors in all district buildings.

The mandate covers all students in pre-kindergarten through 12th grade as well as teachers and staff while interacting with students.

The same exemptions from last school year will apply — those who have a medical exemption or have a hearing impairment will not have to wear a mask.

Students will be able to remove masks while eating and drinking and will not be required to wear them outdoors, at recess and during physical activities, such as sports and exercise.

Range of alternatives discussed

The school board spent nearly three hours discussing among themselves about next steps before adopting a universal mask policy.
Just three weeks ago, the board had allowed masks to be optional this school year.

The school board expressed a range of emotions on masking.

Some board members wanted to keep masks optional. Others wanted to be cautious and stick with universal masking at all times while indoors for all staff and students.

Other board members advocated for a more limited mask policy focused on elementary students who are too young to currently be vaccinated (similar to the policy approved by the Shawnee Mission school board last week).

But that alternative posed a dilemma for USD 232 sixth graders, most of whom are still not old enough to be vaccinated yet and would have to wear masks with seventh and eighth graders in the same building who would be unmasked.

Still others questioned whether masks should be optional for teachers.

Arguments for masks — ‘effective enough’

Last fall, USD 232 was one of the first public school districts in Johnson County to bring students back into the classroom full time. Some attributed the district’s success last year at keeping students in school to the universal masking policy that was in place during the 2020-21 school year.

Furthermore, some board members argued, a universal mask policy could help avoid potential quarantines of students or shutdowns of entire school buildings in the event of an outbreak.

“I’m going to err on the side of caution because my number one goal is to have our students in class, in-person learning, as much as they can,” said board member Rick Amos. “If that means that we’ve got to put a mask on for even a short period of time, we’re better off than if we have to close the whole school down.

He added:

“Whether masks are effective or not, I think masks work effective enough,” said board member Rick Amos.

“This has consumed all of us; this has consumed many of these people, many of our patrons. Our parents say it’s consumed way more of our lives and time that we will never, unfortunately, get back. Whether masks are effective or not, I think masks work effective enough.

The Johnson County Department of Health and Environment does not recommend quarantining individuals in close contact with someone infected with COVID-19 if a universal mask wearing policy is in place.

Elizabeth Holzschuh, epidemiologist for the county health department, spoke at the meeting and said masks work best when everyone uses them.

She added that masks are particularly important with the Delta variant of COVID-19 continuing to spread in the Kansas City metro.

Board President Danielle Heikes, along with board members Bill Fletcher and Rachele Zade voted against the universal masking policy.

Heikes said she preferred making masks optional for students age 12 and older, who are eligible to get the COVID-19 vaccine.

Zade preferred a policy that exempted teachers and staff. Fletcher said he wanted a “flexible” mask policy for students and staff.

The school board also unanimously approved the following:

  • Masks for visitors: A policy requiring visitors to wear masks in school buildings, unless mask regulations governing over the school district (such as at the county level) become more restrictive.
  • Masks on buses: A policy requiring masks on buses in the same manner as in classrooms, unless mask regulations governing school buses become more restrictive (in response to considerations that buses are public transit and governed by state and federal law).
  • Exclusions: A policy of excluding from school anyone considered or presumed to be contagious with a communicable disease (such as COVID-19). Anyone exposed to COVID-19 and recommended for quarantine by the county health department will be excluded from school. Anyone fully vaccinated or who has a documented case of COVID-19 in the past six months will not be considered exposed and will not be excluded unless they are symptomatic.
  • Testing: The school district will offer voluntary COVID-19 testing in partnership with MAWD Pathology Group and the Kansas Department of Health and Environment. This also includes screening of non-symptomatic individuals and anyone exposed to COVID-19.

A divided community on masks

The board meeting was packed with about 70 people who came out to share either support or opposition toward a mandatory mask policy.

The school board room meeting was packed with a crowd nearly split between those who favored a stricter mask policy and those who urging the board to make masks optional.

About 70 people showed up — roughly half in masks and half unmasked. A little more than half of the 23 who spoke asked the board to reverse course and make masks mandatory.

“If we choose to make masking optional, we are teaching children that it is normal to bow to political pressure and to ignore what peer-reviewed consensus in immunology and public health recommends,” said Monica Lewis, a pastor and parent of a 2-year-old and a rising fourth grader at Clear Creek Elementary.

She said she and her fourth grader share an autoimmune disease that causes her concern for a flexible mask policy.

“I’m in support of requiring masking in our schools, especially for those of them who don’t have the privilege of choosing the vaccine: our youngest and our most vulnerable, our children.

Elizabeth Holzschuh, epidemiologist for the Johnson County Department of Health and Environment, advised the board to consider a universal mask policy to potentially avoid quarantines.

“The bottom line is tonight you will be choosing between convenient politics and the truth. The truth is that data-driven science, that the global community has affirmed: masking and vaccines are the best means of preventing spread of COVID and of the delta variant,” she said.

Parents of students in the district also cited the outbreak at a Johnson County Park and Recreation District summer camp — that was being held at Clear Creek Elementary — as an example for the need to protect unvaccinated children by instituting universal masking.

On the other hand, parents who have repeatedly urged the school board to keep students in school and make masks optional once again voiced arguments for parental choice and personal freedom.

Becky Gallagher was among about 10 members of the public who favored an optional mask policy.

Those who favored an optional mask policy also argued that the mask policies and other COVID-19 restrictions, particularly those related to exclusions of possibly infected students with no symptoms, have resulted in mental health issues and bullying toward exempt students. They also argue that quarantines have resulted in a loss of learning.

“In my memory, there’s never been anything more divisive in education than what is happening right now,” said Becky Gallagher, a parent of a senior at De Soto High. “I feel like this is a golden opportunity for us to teach our children that although others make different decisions than we do for their health care, we will not castigate, vilify, shame or shun those who choose differently than we do.

“We are not asking for other parents to unmask their children if they do not believe this is the right medical decision for their children. We are here to ensure that the same laws that protect the rights of those who want their children to wear a mask also protect those who do not want their children to wear a mask.”

The school board urged that it will evaluate the universal mask policy in 30 to 60 days, after observing COVID-19 case trends and vaccination rates in the area.