Blue Valley school board candidates on the issues: COVID-19 and masks

Rushton Elementary students in class

Candidates running for three seats on the Blue Valley board of education discuss their views on the district's policy requiring all students, staff and visitors inside district facilities to wear masks. File image.

In August, we asked our readers about the issues you wanted to hear the candidates running for Blue Valley school board address. Based on your feedback, we developed a five-item questionnaire touching on the most important issues to patrons of the district.

Each day this week, we will publish the candidates’ responses to one of five questions. Today, we are publishing candidates’ responses to the following question:

What’s your assessment of how the district has handled managing COVID-19 risk at the start of this school year? Do you believe masks are effective at slowing the spread of the virus? Do you support the masking requirement for students? 

Below are the answers the Post received from the candidates on this issue:

Member 4 area

Kaety Bowers

The question of Blue Valley District’s COVID precautions is still heavy on the minds of administration, staff, parents and children. Attempting to educate oneself, there is still conflicting data all around as to the benefits versus the risks. Psychologically speaking, young children are at a disadvantage in the educational realm as they learn in a more environmental way, taking in the whole world around them rather than just laser-focused instruction. They need interaction, to see faces, grasp expression, etc. There are also children with medical needs that are compounded by mask use which is detrimental to their education. We have a severe mental health crisis compounded by social distancing.

However, there is still the need, want and desire to keep our children safe no matter the source. After election, I would promote the use of the current cumulative dashboard being sent daily by the Johnson County Manager’s office to the Board of County Commissioners for ages 0-80+ for deciding district COVID precautions. This chart has cumulative totals of hospitalizations since March 2020. This chart is relevant because it tracks residents sent to other state’s hospitals such as Children’s Mercy Hospital in Kansas City, Mo.

So, many countries are not requiring schools to mask, including the following: England/Wales, Ireland (face masks for older secondary students only when in hallways and no masking for those born 2006 and on), Norway, Sweden (masking not recommended in schools),  Denmark, Finland (masks not recommended for younger primary students), Holland (masks only required for secondary students and teachers when they are moving around their schools), Switzerland, Austria (masks required for first 14 days of schools until seated; then reassessment occurs).

I believe we should safely be able to follow their example and would have voted for such. Spring Hill has provided a great example of mask mitigation within Johnson County. Outside of the county in Dodge City, they are mask optional, and the entire school district there currently has four positive case as of Oct. 15.

Furthermore; vaccinations have been readily available for ages 12 and up. Pfizer submitted their initial data to the FDA from the trial of their COVID-19 vaccine in children 5-12 years of age. The company plans to submit a formal request of emergency-use authorization for that age range in the coming weeks. I anticipate that it will be approved soon thereafter and we will see a surge in vaccinated children in that age group.

Andrew Van Der Laan

The district has done a good job at the start of this school year with managing COVID risk, and the mitigation policies and procedures currently in place are definitely an improvement from the 2020-21 school year that left everyone so frustrated.

It’s great to have kids back in school full time, engaged with classes and teachers and friends, playing sports, and participating in other activities like band, theater, debate, and of course Homecoming! We’re not back to normal yet, but seeing my own three kids learning and happy tells me we are on the right track.

I do believe that masks help slow the spread of the virus, but more importantly, that’s what public health experts believe; I want to be clear that as a board member I would follow expert advice, not just my own beliefs. I hope the district continues with all the mitigation strategies that make consistent in-person school possible, including vaccination where possible, masking, social distancing, seating in pods, and deep cleaning and sanitizing every evening.

Member 5 Area

Gina Knapp

I think the district has done a fantastic job of mitigating COVID-19 risk to our students, administrators and teachers for the start of this school year. Incidents of spread at the schools are almost nil and cases and exclusions are very low. We know from public health officials and other districts without mask mandates, that masks ARE effective at slowing the spread. The number one goal of the Board is to educate students. We know the best way to do this is in person. Until we have vaccinations, or herd immunity to this disease, I fully support the masking requirement for students.

Christine White

Christine White’s name will appear on the Nov. 2 ballot, but she has said she is not actively campaigning and will not accept the office if elected.

Member 6 Area

Jim McMullen

I do not support a mandatory masking requirement for all students for the entire school year, which is the policy that is currently in place. Although Johnson County passed a mask mandate, each school district has the autonomy to adopt or modify that requirement.

In my view, requiring the masking of children all day every day the entire school year while the rest of Johnson County is fully open for business and pleasure without any mitigation in place is not sensible, as that restriction-free activity is primarily what causes community spread.

I advocate one of the following two policies as an alternative: either permit parents to opt their children out of the masking policy, or require masking while children are moving through hallways and in large gatherings, but when the students arrive to their classrooms and are seated, they would be permitted to remove their masks. The former is the policy followed in the U.K. and Scandinavia. The latter is the policy followed in Holland, Austria and Ireland, among others.

Based on my review, there is evidence that masks are at least modestly effective at slowing spread, though one should not overstate their effectiveness, especially among children where COVID-19 has the least severe impact. Health concerns should not be the only consideration, however, in evaluating the masking policy. We must also consider the non-health ramifications of long-term masking of children, including psychological, educational, and developmental impacts on children. For instance, how can we know whether masking young children who are just learning to read for two full school years will not have negative impacts on those children — in terms of how they learn to read, how they view social interaction with their peers, how they develop cognitively? I cannot agree with a policy that removes parents from this decision.

As with every policy a governmental body makes, one must weigh competing considerations. By way of example, Kansans have tolerated 40 to 50 teenage driving deaths a year for decades without any sort of movement to raise the driving age higher, even though that change in law alone would certainly save dozens of lives a year.

I would like to see a policy debate that avoids trite political slogans and gives due consideration to these competing concerns of parents. Such a debate has largely been absent from our public discourse.

Lindsay Weiss

I think we’ve learned that we have to do whatever it takes to keep kids in school full-time — continuously and uninterrupted — because it’s the key to their academic growth and mental health. The most important job a Board of Education member has is to make sure kids get the best education possible — and they have to be IN school to do that. I will always consider public health recommendations that allow us to remain in school and, second to that, allow kids to participate in sports and activities that they love.

On Tuesday, we will publish the candidates’ responses to the following question:

Diversity, equity and inclusion programs have been under scrutiny in recent months as national media personalities and politicians raise alarms about the teaching of “critical race theory” or ideas linked to it. Do you support the district’s current approach to diversity, equity and inclusion? Why or why not? What does the term “critical race theory” mean to you?