Shawnee Mission middle, high school students won’t have to wear masks starting Jan. 3

Shawnee Mission masks

Shawnee Mission middle and high school students will not be required to wear masks at school when they return from winter break Jan. 3. On Monday, the board of education approved a spring COVID-19 mitigation plan that makes masks optional for secondary students. Above, Shawnee Mission South high school students take a test.

Shawnee Mission is the latest Johnson County public school district to adjust its mask rules for older students, but the district’s current requirement that all students in all grades wear masks will remain in effect through the fall semester.

The board of education on Monday approved new COVID-19 mitigation measures for the spring semester which begins in January, including the elimination of a mask requirement for all secondary students in middle and high school.

Shawnee Mission middle and high school students will need to remain masked until the end of the fall semester, but when they return from winter break on Jan. 3, masks will be optional in grades 7 through 12.

Masks are already optional for high schoolers in USD 232, and after Thanksgiving, they’ll be optional in Blue Valley and Olathe high schools, as well.

‘The struggle is real’

SMSD Superintendent Michelle Hubbard told the school board Monday that district administrators had previously discussed removing mask requirements for secondary students when vaccines became more widely available to children and COVID-19 cases in Johnson County continued their weeks-long downward trend.

SM South student wears mask incorrectly
Hubbard said if the district didn’t roll back on mask requirements for secondary students like neighboring districts, it would become more difficult for staff to enforce mask wearing. Above, a SM South student wears a mask.

That, coupled with neighboring Johnson County districts rolling back their requirements, led Shawnee Mission officials to present an optional mask plan to the school board Monday.

If the district didn’t cut the mask requirement, Hubbard said, it would be “exceptionally difficult” for school staff to handle enforcement in the spring.

“The struggle is real,” Hubbard said. “Our teachers and principals are fighting this fight everyday. You all get the emails from both sides of this, right, those principals and teachers are seeing that as well. I think it’s going to become exceptionally difficult to enforce with our neighbors making the change, and they’re making the change even more quickly than what we are recommending.”

Elementary students, along with teachers, staff and visitors in elementary schools, will still be required to wear masks because of a countywide public health order that remains in place.

All bus riders, including secondary students, will need to wear masks on school buses due to a federal mask mandate that applies to public transportation.

And middle and high schools could reimplement mask rules under the district’s new policy.

If a school building’s percentage of students in exclusion and quarantine hits 3% or more, masks will be required again for at least 14 days — or until the percentage of recommended exclusions and quarantines drops below 3%.

Shawnee Mission community input

Some, like Annie Hasan, a teacher at Shawnee Mission South High School, asked the board during public comments Monday to consider waiting until children younger than five are eligible for COVID-19 vaccines.

Hasan said she and her husband have a young child at home, and much like her other colleagues with young children, they fear bringing COVID-19 home.

Hasan asked the board to wait to make masks optional until at least a few weeks after the return from winter break, for fear that the holidays might be a breeding ground for the spread of COVID-19.

“If you choose to make masks optional for our schools, then at the very least give me the opportunity to request that my students walking into my classroom everyday wear a mask until I get the same opportunity that other parents with older children had to protect my own baby,” Hasan said.

Others like Laurie Donnelly, a parent at Prairie Elementary, said she wishes all students — including those in elementary — had the option to wear masks.

Donnelly said it’s time to let children get back to a pre-pandemic school experience.

“It’s time to let us parents choose,” Donnelly said. “Young people have been restricted during the pandemic in the United States despite being less at-risk for severe illness to protect others. We owe it to them to return their lives to normal.”

Other COVID-19 mitigation changes

Shawnee Mission will also enter the state’s “test to stay” COVID-19 testing program on Jan. 4, according to district documents.

Previously, district administrators expressed concerns with joining the program due to sustainability and staffing shortages.

The “test to stay” program requires daily testing of students and staff for seven days after exposure to a positive COVID-19 case.

As long as the student or staff member tests negative before the next school or work day, they are allowed to remain in school. If results aren’t received in time, this may mean a one or two-day absence, according to district documents.

Students and staff who are in the seven-day window for being tested must wear a mask at school during that period and while participating in extracurricular activities. They must also social distance while eating lunch.

SM South choir students
Until Jan. 3, Shawnee Mission secondary students involved in KSHSAA extra curricular activities will be required to wear masks during practices at school, but not during games or concerts. Above, SM South choir students in class.

Additionally, Shawnee Mission will adhere to the Kansas State High School Activities Association’s guidelines for extracurricular activities like sports and performing arts.

KSHSAA is strongly recommending students and audience members wear masks during extracurricular activities but isn’t requiring it.

Laura Guy, the Shawnee Mission West area board member, said she was conflicted about following KSHSAA guidance at this time.

Guy said it “seems ludicrous” to ask students to wear masks at band rehearsals but not at the actual concerts.

“I think it’s already difficult in the high schools. I think once we go there, I don’t know that we can hold those floodgates closed until Jan. 3,” Guy said. “I have a lot of concerns about that.”

Prior to the final vote, Guy called for an amendment to not begin following KSHSAA guidance until Jan. 3.

The motion failed in a 5-2 vote, with Guy and at-large board member Heather Ousley in support.

Board members torn

Other board members, including Jessica Hembree, Shawnee Mission South area board member, expressed uncertainty about how they would vote on mask rules.

Hembree said the COVID-19 mitigation plan for the spring presented by district officials Monday was another difficult decision for the board.

Guy added that she had mixed emotions about the decision, especially when thinking about pre-kindergarten students, noting that the district does enroll children under 5 in its pre-K program who are not yet eligible to be vaccinated.

Shawnee Mission East area board member Mary Sinclair also struggled to vote on the item. She took a long pause prior to voting no on Guy’s amendment to delay adherence to KSHSAA guidance.

Sinclair said by voting no on that amendment, the onus will be on secondary students to keep masks on during the school day.

The board approved the new COVID-19 mitigation measures for the spring semester in a 5-2 vote, with Ousley and Guy in opposition.