USD 232 (De Soto) school board candidates on the issues: COVID-19 and masks

Johnson County mask rules

COVID-19 risk mitigation and masking policies have been heated topics at USD 232 school board meetings. Above, students read books on the floor while wearing masks at Starside Elementary in De Soto. Photo courtesy USD 232.

In August, we asked our readers about the issues you wanted to hear the candidates running for USD 232 board of education 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:

School District Member 4

Danielle Heikes (incumbent)

I have served on the USD 232 school board for the past six years, and I’m proud of the fact that we were the first district in the county last year to return students to in-person learning and we were able to do so safely due to our mitigation protocols, including masking. My primary objective is to keep students in school, in-person and to do so safely. I do believe that masks are effective, but regardless of one’s personal view on masks, we have been able to minimize exclusions resulting from recommended quarantines from the health department when all students are fully masked. This is particularly true at the K-6 th grade level, because those students are not yet eligible for the vaccine.

Additionally, our district is the proud home to many medically complex and vulnerable students and students with underlying health conditions. In many cases, their families sought our district for the fantastic center-based programs and individualized education we offer. We must do everything in our power to protect these students.

I do not like wearing a mask. I have a 1st grader in the district who is in her critical stage of learning to read. She also has a lisp. Seeing proper word formation is extremely important for her, but I know masks are not here forever. Our community numbers are showing signs of declining again. In fact, I think we are close to beginning to unpeel the onion, layer by layer. This may look like making masks optional at the High School level first and evaluating the outcome of this transition, and then assessing 7th and 8th grade options. Additionally, I’m extremely excited that we are preparing to roll out a Test-to-stay program. This program will allow students deemed to be a close contact by the health department to stay in school instead of being excluded from school during their quarantine period.

Our district has done everything in its power to safely keep kids in school this year, learning and achieving. I’m proud of our efforts and I look forward to the day when we can return our focus to the primary role of the school board and the amazing achievement occurring in our district.

Crystal Duke

I do not believe it is appropriate to mandate the wearing of masks, and I also believe we should allow those to wear masks who want to. Any mandate should also include exemptions for children who do not do well in an environment where they have to wear a mask for an extended period of time. I’m fine with recommendations as long as the ultimate decision is with the parent. We also need to review all aspects of COVID policy to see if they make any sense and that any unnecessary rules are repealed or edited. While this is a difficult subject in which there are many different views, I do believe we can all agree that common sense should prevail.

School District Member 5

Calley Malloy

I think our district has handled the pandemic exceptionally well. We were one of the first districts to go back to in-person learning last year, as well as making masks mandatory when we saw the spike of Delta. I am also looking forward to the Test-to-Stay program that is soon to be implemented. As a hospice worker who works in nursing homes and hospitals, I have seen the effectiveness of a robust testing system. I have been fortunate to offer my healthcare relationships to the district to help support this new initiative.

I do believe masks are effective at slowing the spread, and there is plenty of peer-reviewed science that backs this hypothesis. Until a better mitigation strategy is available for all students, masks are the most efficient strategy for limiting viral transmission in the classroom. There is also data available that suggests masks are most effective when worn by everyone. My mask protects you, your mask protects me. I think it’s important to remember this for our medically fragile and complex students. When dealing with an infectious disease that exhibits a-symptomatic spread and a 48-72 hour virus shed prior to showing symptoms; simply keeping healthy students at school and sick kids at home isn’t a viable strategy. I do support the masking requirements for students and believe in safe in-person learning for ALL students.

Amy Parker

Parents have the ultimate authority to make all medical decisions for their own children. The school board may recommend masks, but the parent and/or student should be the one to make that decision with guidance of their own personal medical provider. I also have concerns regarding the extensive nature of the exclusion policy for those who were exposed. I believe a more appropriate response lies in frequent testing and trusting parents.

John Gaignat (incumbent)

Gaignat’s name will appear on the ballot, but he has bowed out of the race.

School District Member 6

Emily Carpenter

While I understand the pandemic has been very difficult for everyone in the district, I do not believe our district’s response this school year to Covid was appropriate. The role and responsibilities of the school board do not include making medical decisions for students and staff – that should be left up to each individual and their own medical provider. I also believe our district’s current “exclusion due to exposure/close contact recommendation” policy is completely unnecessary and harmful to students’ education. I believe that mandating masks in most settings all day is unnecessary and I also believe masks can cause a negative effect on the person wearing the mask.

Brandi Jonasson

All decision makers should be listening to science and medical experts on how to navigate this pandemic. I believe the district worked with the Johnson County Health Department and other medical experts to formulate a plan to get kids in school as soon as it was safely possible. I believe they did everything they could to safely educate our children during a public health

I have seen numerous reports and studies and have spoken with health care professionals, including my children’s pediatrician. I listened to the public health professionals who presented their advice to the School Board before the beginning of the school year. Based on what I have heard and learned, I am convinced that masks are effective at slowing the spread of the virus. My top priority is keeping kids in school. I also believe that since the community spread numbers are steadily decreasing, we need to take a look at possibly unmasking the student population that has had an opportunity to get vaccinated. I am happy that USD 232 is implementing a Test to Stay program and trying to work with the student community to continue to safely educate our kids in person.

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?