USD 232 school board may urge county to lift mask mandate for K-6 schools

USD 232 school board members in De Soto expressed interest in asking Johnson County to lift a health order that requires masks in K-6th grade buildings. Photo courtesy USD 232.

As COVID-19 cases trend downward in Johnson County, USD 232 school board members in De Soto may ask the county to lift a public health order mandating masks be worn in all school buildings serving students up to and including 6th grade.

At the school board’s meeting Monday night, most board members expressed interest in each writing letters to the Johnson County Board of County Commissioners asking them to remove the school mask requirement for younger grades.

The board of county commissioners is set to revisit the mask order at its regular meeting on Thursday, Feb. 17.

“I do hope that they will talk about it and will really consider the data and the science and allow that mandate… to expire,” said board member Ashley Spaulding, who said she already wrote to the county board in favor of lifting the mandate.

Superintendent Frank Harwood said that if the countywide school mask order is lifted then buildings in USD 232 can return to an optional masks by Feb. 22.

Even if that happens, Harwood, said, the district would continue to require masks at individual buildings if the proportion of students in quarantine or isolation rose above 2%.

COVID-related leave for staff

The school board on Monday also unanimously agreed to allow up to five days of leave for professional employees who are absent from work if they contract COVID-19.

The new policy is the district’s response to a staff shortage the district experienced at the start of the new semester in January.

Under the policy, the superintendent may also allow additional leave for “extenuating circumstances,” according to the memorandum of understanding about COVID-19 leave the district will enter into with the De Soto Teachers’ Association.

Some public commenters who identified themselves as USD 232 staff spoke in favor of the COVID-19 leave policy on Monday but also urged the board to consider allowing the policy to cover absences for employees caring for dependents, such as children or parents under their care who contract COVID-19.

Several board members asked district staff to look into developing a flexible policy that would allow district employees to use COVID-related leave to care for dependents who fall ill from the disease.

“The last thing that I want is anybody docked,” said board member Rick Amos. “I think we probably need to look at just making sure there’s no cap. Some of this is going to be on the teachers and DTA to kind of, I guess, police themselves. Nobody’s abusing it, but I think we need to try and make sure we take care of everybody.”

The COVID-19 leave policy is retroactive to Jan. 5 of this year and continues through the remainder of this school year.

The district policy allows teachers to sell back up to 12 days of unused leave. However, any COVID-19 leave taken during this semester will count against that.

For example, if a teacher qualifies to sell back six days of unused leave at the end of the school year but also claimed four days of leave related to COVID-19, then the teacher can only sell back two days to the district.

The current buyback rate is $124 per day, according to district staff. The cost to the district for enacting the policy is about $80,600 if all 130 staff members who are eligible for COVID-19 leave used all five of their COVID0-19 leave days, according to district staff.