Johnson County commissioners will consider future of school mask order at January meeting

Johnson County COVID-19 schools

The Johnson County Board of County Commissioners voted Thursday to take up an agenda item at its next meeting in the first week of January regarding the county's current public health order requiring masks in elementary and middle schools. File photo.

The Johnson County Commission has decided to take an early look at whether to continue a public health rule requiring indoor mask wearing for grade-school and middle school-aged children.

Commissioners voted unanimously Thursday to put the question up for discussion at its first meeting next year, Jan. 6.

The vote doesn’t guarantee an end to the current mask rule on that day nor does it say they’ll even make a decision. In setting the date, commissioners said they wanted to have a little time after the holidays to see how infection rates of COVID-19 and hospitalizations are trending before deciding what to do.

The mask order, issued Aug. 5, requires indoor use of masks in schools and on buses through sixth grade, with some exceptions. It is set to expire May 31, 2022.

In making the decision, commissioners will have to weigh continuing and insistent appeals to get rid of mask rules against evidence that more transmissible variants are causing a spike in cases and an increase in hospitalizations around the Kansas City region.

Cases on the rise

Cases in Johnson County have risen in recent weeks, with the test positivity rate more than doubling to 11.1%, county health director Sanmi Areola, Ph.D., told the commission Thursday during his weekly report.

The case rate is now 341 per 100,000 residents, although about 71.4% of eligible county residents are at least partially vaccinated.

Areola said the high rate of infection has sparked concerns about hospitals, which are already stretched. Hospital officials have called a press conference for Friday morning to discuss the sharp increase in cases.

Meanwhile, calls for an end to masks in schools continue.

The commission received a letter this week signed by 26 elected officials urging an end to the mask rule governing elementary and middle schools.

The list of signatories included nine Republican state lawmakers and eleven members or members-elect from the Spring Hill, Blue Valley, Gardner-Edgerton, Olathe and USD 232 De Soto school boards.

Public comments

The issue drew a crowd of around 50 to the commission chambers in Olathe Thursday, bringing a rally atmosphere to the meeting that recalled similarly boisterous commission meetings over the past two years.

Some attendees carried signs bearing messages like, “Mandate Health Freedom,” and “Face Masks = Child Abuse.”

Most of the 17 speakers who were given the mic during public comments were against a continued mandate.

Several spoke of learning and social challenges faced by children that they believe are caused by masks that obscure faces.

Richard O’Neill, Jr. of Overland Park said masks “obliterate social connections with teachers, fellow students and most importantly their own sense of self.”

Sabrina Hardy was concerned about emotional toll she believes the masks have on students and the message they send.

“It effectively sends (the message) to the child wearing it, ‘You are dirty,’” she said.

There were some more extreme anti-mask arguments as well, likening COVID-19 restrictions to the Holocaust. There were also references to the “deep state” and the Illuminati.

Three speakers did support continued mask rules, or at least a more deliberate transition away from masks.

Claire Reagan said she supports masks in school to keep everyone safe. She said she has two elementary school-aged children and one infant who is too young to be vaccinated.

School kids live and spend time with vulnerable people, she said.

“I would hate for a child to bring COVID home to an ailing grandparent an immunocompromised relative or a younger sibling,” she said.

What commissioners said

Commission Chairman Ed Eilert noted that when the mask order was first instituted in August, the focus was on the availability of vaccines for children and giving families time to get children vaccinated.

Now that childhood vaccination is happening, the commission can re-evaluate its policy, he said, but the amount of community spread will still have to be taken into account.

Commissioner Charlotte O’Hara pointed out that even if the commission lifts the order, school districts can still make their own decisions about whether and when to require masks.

Some districts have gone back and forth on masks for high school students as the infection rate waxes and wanes.

“I suggest at this point we just exit,” she said. “Leave it to the local school boards as to what they want to do.”

She said letters between school officials and the county health department earlier in the pandemic showed that “they did not want to take the full brunt of the political repercussions of requiring masks, and so they used us. Well, it’s not going to make any difference. We remand it back to them, they can make the decisions. We’re out of it.”

Commissioner Jeff Meyers said he is not yet ready to take that exit but is open to looking at the issue again.

“I’m concerned that once we do exit the mask mandate for these students it’s very, very difficult to go back,” he said, noting that the recent uptick in cases has brought about some early closings for the holidays.

The commission should be most concerned with keeping schools open and kids in school, he said.