Shawnee Mission school board candidates on the issues: COVID-19 and masks

Johnson County COVID-19 schools

Candidates running for three seats on the Shawnee Mission 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 Shawnee Mission 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:

At-Large Seat

Brian Neilson

The district did a fine job at the beginning of the pandemic when there was little data available and we were wrestling what we were dealing with. Today, I think that if the county is in the green zone for infection rate and cases per 100,000, then the board must remove the mandate. I think the board should immediately get in line with county guidance where masks are not mandated for secondary grades, but SMSD is being more conservative than the vote the county undertook. For this reason, Brad Stratton was the sole dissent as he stated he wished to follow the county recommendation and no stronger. Heather Ousley said in the debate that an 80% vaccination rate is needed for herd immunity and at that point implied that the masks can come off. I do not see a world where 80% of kids will be given the vaccine, and so that implies masks are forever.

I will remind readers that some of the top epidemiologists in the world in England have never recommended masks for elementary school kids and as of right now with similar vaccine uptake as Johnson County there are no restrictions on gatherings or masking across the entire country. From pandemic onset to present day, there have been zero deaths in Johnson County under age 20 and only 5 cases that made it to the ICU. That’s why the media and others only discuss cases now. Early in the pandemic, it was hospital beds and deaths. The narrative has changed in order to keep the sense of urgency up when the emergency is over.

It’s a policy choice. Nobody owns the “science”, the UK government health scientists in England are as smart and well-trained as scientists in Johnson County or the CDC. Vote November 2nd for the policy you agree with.

Heather Ousley (incumbent)

I think the district has been committed to successfully implementing risk mitigation techniques, including masking, cohorting, and distancing where possible. This coupled with the building improvements to the filtration system last year, including the purchase of higher-grade filters, has allowed the district to slow the spread of covid, allowing us to remain in person in learning to this point.

Do you believe masks are effective at slowing the spread of the virus?

The now infamous graph provided to county commissioners showing the spread of COVID-19 in buildings with masking versus those without masking shows how powerful they are as a tool to control the spread of the virus. In addition, the CDC’s guidance, the AAP’s guidance, and our local county health department have all recommended masking as an important measure to allow students to stay in person learning. These health organizations have come to this conclusion based off the best available data, and their expertise, and I trust that their positions are science based and have the best interest of students in mind.

Do you support the masking requirement for students?

Yes. I was very appreciative to serve with board members who were willing to make a tough call prior to other local districts, and who moved to include all students in the mask requirement, after the information from the CDC became available revealing the risk of spread even for students who have been vaccinated.

SM East area

Zach Roberts

It is difficult to be critical of the board’s decisions during 2020. Considering what little was known about the behavior of COVID disease at that time, the decision to close schools after spring break was both wise and outside of the board’s control.

The virtual/hybrid model that followed was a failure for many students and families. Some left SMSD during this time. It is clear from this experience that in-person learning should be a priority. School leadership seems to understand this. However, I believe that a concerted effort to understand the impact that masks and closures have caused for student education is warranted.

Yes. I believe masks probably reduce transmission of COVID-19 in certain circumstances. This was demonstrated in two recent CDC studies, although the overall rate of infections was low in both studies. One looked at a six week period for 999 schools in Arizona. Findings indicated that schools without mask policies were 3.5 times more likely to have a COVID outbreak than those requiring masks. It must be noted that an outbreak was somewhat liberally defined as 2 confirmed positive cases in any two-week period. It also should be noted that two-thirds of the schools without mask mandates did not report an outbreak during the observed period.

A second study looked at COVID tracking data for school age children over 8 weeks in 520 American counties. There were increased numbers of positive cases in school-aged children after the start of school, regardless of whether a county-wide mask mandate was in place. Sixteen daily infections per 100,000 students were seen in counties with mask mandates, versus 35 daily infections per 100,000 students in counties without a mandate.

I question whether mask mandates are necessary, and would support student and parent choice at this time. To date, infection prevalence among school-aged children has been low, and serious disease as a result of infection in this cohort has been very rare. It is becoming clear that recovery from COVID infection generally results in natural immunity that offers broad protection against variants. Medical treatments are readily available for those who do get sick, and vaccine options are readily available as a preventative measure for those who wish to reduce their risk of serious disease. Future policy should monitor local factors, prioritize in person learning, and consider potential negative consequences arising from the mitigation efforts.

Mary Sinclair (incumbent)

I support the current Shawnee Mission School District mask requirement for students and staff, in an effort to keep schools open and students learning in-person, safely.

Masking is one of several risk mitigation steps that together provide layers of protection against the spread of COVID-19. Along with masks, the safety protocols include social distancing, hand hygiene, building sanitization, air filtration, access to COVID testing, access to vaccines for those who are eligible, and exclusion of those who test positive per Johnson County Department of Health guidelines. Working in partnership with our county and state public health professionals has been critical.

Masks have been effective at slowing the spread of COVID-19. The data-informed advice of our public health experts at the local, state, and up through international levels, point to masks and vaccinations as two particularly effective shields against the life-threatening effects of the virus. The most local and recent example on the impact of the mask requirement comes from the comparison among the Johnson County school districts. The one district that has no masking requirement had an outbreak, with rates of positive cases over five times that of the other five districts in Johnson County with masking requirements. While recent data from the Kansas Department of Health dashboard may appear to be contradictory, the discrepancy is largely accounted for by the state’s inclusion of students enrolled in virtual programs. The Johnson County Department of Health has the capacity to account for only those students attending in-person on their dashboard.

A primary goal of the SMSD risk mitigation protocol is to keep students engaged in learning, preferably in-person, and by providing a safe learning environment for both students and staff. The district’s approach to managing the risk of COVID-19 spread, at the start of this 2020-2021 school year, was strengthened by broader access to vaccines for our secondary school-aged students and staff throughout the district. This additional layer of protection has been particularly important at the secondary level, due to the challenges of cohorting in these settings and the asymptomatic nature of the virus. I appreciate the collaboration of Johnson County Public Health experts as we navigate these extraordinary circumstances. I hope that conditions will improve and that the district will be able to provide a safe learning environment without a mask requirement in the future.

SM West Area

April Boyd-Noronha

The last year has been very tough, especially for students and families, as school districts scrambled to assess the latest health recommendations for COVID-19. Now with the availability of the COVID-19 vaccine, more substantive scientific research supporting the effectiveness of masks use to decrease transmission of coronavirus and COVID-19/Delta variant health-outcome data showing heightened health risks for children, our district is armed with more resources and information to keep students and staff safe.

Shawnee Mission School District, along with the majority of school districts across the region, has implemented mask mandates to keep students and staff safely in schools. Our district has also provided convenient opportunities for our families to get vaccinated. I support both of these measures because they align with recommendations from leading health experts and public health agencies. I trust science over politics.

The politicization of our children’s health is reprehensible to witness. All my life I have leaned on the guidance of scientists to keep myself, my children and my community safe. In the past, for most Americans, these critical life decisions were not vetted through a political lens, nor should they be now. The primary focus of district leadership during these unprecedented times should be keeping students safely in school to avoid further learning loss, and promoting healthy communities. Our school district is doing both, and I fully support these efforts.

Sean Claycamp

I want to make it clear I am for mask and vaccine choice for students and staff at SMSD and that will not change regardless of FDA approval. I am not anti-mask or anti-vax.

My wife and I were given both doses of the Moderna vaccine last year as part of the stage 3 trial. We continue to be monitored in the trial and will be given the boosters. In addition, if masks were optional at SMSD, my children would remain in masks due completely to the quarantine policy currently in place in SMSD and the “close contact” criteria specific to COVID.

I want my kids in school. They learn better there.

I think if masks were a choice in SMSD schools, we’d be surprised how many families would choose to keep their kids in masks because of the fear of an increased chance of quarantine and missing school days.

The current mask policy will not change this year due to the mask mandate put in place by Johnson County in August [which requires masking in all schools serving students up to and including 6th grade.] SMSD actually went a step further in its K-12 mask policy. If elected, I would try to roll the mask policy back at least to be in line with the Johnson County policy and would remain a consistent voice for mask and vaccine choice on the SMSD Board for all students.

When we discuss COVID-19 and schools, it is important to consider key factors. First, students are at virtually no risk from COVID. Fewer than 500 children ages 0-17 have died from COVID to date and almost half of those the CDC admits were not actually COVID deaths but were classified as such. For instance, a young person dies of late-stage cancer but had COVID at the time of death.

It’s also important to consider those who are at risk of COVID are those 50 and older. In Johnson County, our vaccination rate among these groups is quite high, approaching 70%. Among those 65 and older in Johnson County, the vaccination rate is well over 80%. We have done a great job protecting those at greatest risk. Specific to masks locally, the Shawnee Mission Post ran an article on October 6th detailing school districts and COVID cases per 1,000. Spring Hill has 1.41 cases per 1,000 in that survey and SMSD had 5.1. Spring Hill is NOT masking high school kids right now which we’d expect would elevate their case numbers. It appears that policy did not.

At some point, we are going to have to get these students out of masks. They are at very low risk of death or anything other than mild disease.
Can we at least ask the question if we have gone so far in trying to protect our students that we are potentially harming them in other ways? We continue to ask our children to pay a high price for something that is of very little risk to them.

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?