After an emotional outpouring of testimony from the public on Thursday, the Johnson County Commission approved a new order that requires students, staff and visitors to wear masks inside elementary schools.
The order applies to both public and private schools and covers all facilities that enroll students up to and including sixth grade.
Kids older than sixth grade at these schools would also have to wear masks while in these buildings, unless they are physically separated from the younger grades.
The order does not apply to daycares, which have their own set of state regulations.
‘We want our schools open’
Commissioners and health officials said the order is necessary to combat the emergent Delta variant of COVID-19, which has resulted in a surge in cases among the unvaccinated.
The Kansas City region has “high” transmission of the virus, according to the CDC.
The ranks of the unvaccinated includes every child under 12 and there’s some evidence that the illness is beginning to have a harsher effect on children than did previous versions of the coronavirus, county health officials said Thursday.
“We all want our schools open. We all want our kids in class who aren’t. That’s an objective that we all share,” said Commission Chairman Ed Eilert.
He pointed out that a summer camp operated by the county recently had to be shut down because of an outbreak among campers who were unmasked.
“So it is real,” Eilert said.
The commission approved the order 5-2, with Commissioners Charlotte O’Hara and Michael Ashcraft opposed.
A few minutes earlier, they rejected a motion to not adopt the order along the same voting lines.
An amendment was also offered by Commissioner Janee Hanzlick to extend the order to cover grades 7 through 12, effectively making masks required in all schools in the county.
That was voted down 4-3, with O’Hara, Ashcraft, Eilert and Commissioner Shirley Allenbrand opposed.
O’Hara, who has said she does not intend to get vaccinated, urged other commissioners to vote against the order.
“This is the least vulnerable of all of our population and that we’re focusing on them is absolutely unconscionable,” she said.
She said the county data shows only three children under 19 hospitalized in the last five weeks.
“This is not a pandemic proportion that we need to be masking our children twelve years and younger,” she said.
The order enacted Thursday will go into effect Monday, Aug. 9, and would expire May 31, 2022.
Masks would be required indoors and on buses going to and from school. It does not require masks at recess.
There are also some exemptions.
People with medical and mental health conditions or disabilities would not be included but they would be expected to provide documentation.
Likewise, people with hearing impairments or deafness would be exempt, as would those engaged in religious activities.
Athletics was also included as an exemption, but the order notes school athletic activities should follow the Kansas State High Schools Activities Association guidelines.
Questions were raised about whether school boards would be able to opt out of the order.
So far USD 232 in De Soto and the Shawnee Mission School District have some form of mask mandate. Blue Valley and Olathe currently have made them optional, but both of those districts’ school boards are expected to meet in the next week to discuss COVID-19 mitigation measures.
Supporters show up in force
The decision was made after three hours of public comment during which Chairman Ed Eilert repeatedly asked chanting and shouting crowds just outside the hearing room to keep their noise down.
Some of the loudest cheering was in response to people speaking against the mandate. But people supporting stricter mask requirements also turned out in force.
Many supporters had students in the Blue Valley district, which has made masks optional. A half-dozen speakers were local physicians or nurse practitioners who said they have observed the effects of COVID-19 firsthand.
Dr. Sarah Dubin, a pulmonary and critical care physician and mother of three in Blue Valley spoke to the commission on Thursday.
“As a physician actively caring for COVID patients, I am frankly appalled that angry parents are trying to dictate the health of our children instead of those of us who are physicians and scientists,” she said. ““Any death that is preventable by simply wearing a mask is an atrocity.”
Elizabeth Grzymala-Busse also urged approval of the order.
“It’s hubris to wait until the numbers rise locally to make the determination. We need to be proactive, not reactive,” she said.
One student spoke to in favor of the masks.
Mackinzly Hare, a sixth grader, said her own school district decided not to require masks. She said she felt that puts her and her family’s life at risk.
“I feel it is not fair,” she said.
Others noted potential economic impact if outbreaks cause parents and high schoolers to miss work because of quarantining.
Rebecca Gegg told the commission she has been unemployed since May of 2020, but has little chance of being hired if she’s constantly in danger of having to miss work for quarantine.
To make things worse, she said, there’s no virtual learning option this year because of a law passed by the Kansas Legislature this past spring.
Vehement opposition remains
Opponents of the order framed it as a question of government imposition on personal liberty, with sentiments including, “My body, my choice, and “My child my choice,” repeated on Thursday.
Emily Coleman, who was recently named to the county’s Southeast Consolidated Zoning Board, along with some other commenters, referenced the Tuskegee syphilis study of 1932-72 in which African-American men were lied to and used as test subjects in order to observe untreated syphilis.
“This has never been about health. Your government only wants you around so they can experiment on you while stealing your money,” Coleman said.
Others disregarded the steep drop in COVID cases after vaccines became widely available and used the recent uptick in illness as proof that masks don’t work, rather than attributing it to the evolution of the virus and a relaxation of public health measures.
Some opponents called the order “tyranny” or “child abuse” and repeated conspiracy theories.
Mallory Martinet held up a “trafficking” sign and ended her comments with “Trump won.”
But others contended that the virus’s threat called for community action.
Masks are the only protection for Catherine Houlihan’s third grade son, whose health is compromised by kidney problems, she said.
“All the science tells us that even if Connor does all the right things, true protection only comes when everyone around him masks, too. My son deserves a safe education. All our children do,” she said.