Shawnee Mission board narrowly votes to keep masks optional for middle, high school students

COVID-19 Johnson County schools

Shawnee Mission secondary students will not have to wear masks in school upon return to winter break this Wednesday, a decision the board of education upheld at a special called meeting on Jan. 3. Above, Shawnee Mission South students in masks.

Middle and high school students in Shawnee Mission will not be required to wear masks at school for the upcoming semester that begins Wednesday.

After a tense three-hour special meeting Monday night, the SMSD school board ultimately voted to keep the district’s current COVID-19 mitigation plan for the second semester in place unchanged.

That vote came after an initial motion passed that would have made masks required for all students for at least the first two weeks of classes.

But after some discussion and worries expressed by some board members about changing the district’s plan too abruptly, the board reversed itself and opted to enter the semester with masks optional for older students.

Special meeting to review COVID-19 plan

The board originally approved its mitigation plan for the second semester on Nov. 15.

It includes making masks optional in secondary schools but keeping mask requirements in place for elementary schools, in line with a current countywide public health order.

Heather Ousley, an at-large board member and current board president, said Monday’s meeting was called — two days before students are set to return to in-person learning — because the board needed to understand factors like the Omicron variant ahead of the second semester.

Elizabeth Holzschuh with the Johnson County Department of Health and Environment told the board Monday that the Omicron variant is as transmissible as measles and spreads far more easily than previous versions of the disease.

When Ousley asked Holzschuch what her recommendation to the board would be, Holzscuch said JCDHE’s stance was that masks are an important “layer” to fighting COVID-19.

“Given what we’ve seen with Omicron, masks are incredibly important at this point,” Holzschuch said.

Additionally, Holzschuh said using higher grade masks, like KN95 masks, or double masking with a surgical and cloth mask, are better options for protection against Omicron than a simple cloth mask.

Holzschuch comments were twice interrupted by outbursts from members of the the limited-seating audience in the board room, prompting Ousley to temporarily adjourn the meeting both times.

Board reverses itself

After hours of discussion and questioning between board members and Holzschuh, SM East area board member Mary Sinclair made a motion to delay the the implementation of the district’s mitigation plan until Jan. 17, nearly two weeks into the new semester.

“Let’s just not take the risk, let’s keep the masks in place, get a handle on what our rates are and then go to optional [masking] in those buildings where the rates are lower,” Sinclair said.

Currently, Johnson County’s percent positivity stands at 21.5%, its highest point by far since the pandemic began, according to the county’s online COVID-19 dashboard.

Sinclair made a motion that would have made masks required for all students when they returned to classes Wednesday.

Some board members expressed concerns about the wording of Sinclair’s motion, and she amended her motion to change language within the mitigation plan rather than delay its implementation as a whole, leaving other aspects of the plan in place.

That amendment passed in a 4-3 vote.

Board members Jessica Hembree and Laura Guy, along with Ousley and Sinclair, voted for it.

Jamie Borgman, Brad Stratton and Sara Goodburn voted against it.

Then, as Superintendent Michelle Hubbard and the board began working through revising the mitigation plan in real time during the meeting, complications with amending the document kept arising.

First, the changes did not specify universal masking — meaning district employees who are not in a school building wouldn’t have to wear masks.

Then, a revised mask rule appeared to conflict with the Kansas State High School Activities Association’s guidelines for athletics and other extracurricular activities.

Ultimately, SM South area board member Hembree made a motion to revert the document back to its original form, undoing the motion the board had just approved making masks required for all students at the start of the semester.

Hembree said she worried there could be unintended consequences from “amending a document like this on the fly when it would typically take our administrative team days to review.”

Hembree’s motion passed also passed on a 4-3 vote, with Hembree, Stratton, Goodburn and Borgman in support.

Guy, Ousley and Sinclair voted against it.

Hembree said she hopes the board can have a conversation about a vaccination requirement for staff, rather than spend more time on another mask discussion.

“I believe strongly that vaccinations hold the most promise for arriving at the place that I think we’re all trying to get, which is consistent schools open and operational for our families,” Hembree said.