Shawnee Mission middle and high schoolers won’t have to wear masks starting Wednesday

Shawnee Mission secondary students will no longer be required to wear a mask starting Wednesday, Feb. 16. The board of education approved an update to its COVID-19 mitigation plan on Feb. 14 that, based on thresholds, allows every secondary school to go to optional masking. Above, a Shawnee Mission South student wears a mask. File photo.

Shawnee Mission is once again making masks optional in all secondary schools, starting Wednesday, Feb. 16.

The move comes more than a month into the spring semester and weeks after the district’s middle and high schools reverted to mandatory universal masking due to high COVID-19 positivity rates in schools as they returned to in-person classes in early January.

Elizabeth Holzschuh, director of epidemiology for the Johnson County Department of Health and Environment, told the board of education on Monday that new cases in Johnson County are declining.

SMSD’s most recently approved mitigation plan expires on Tuesday, and district administration recommended an updated plan to take its place.

Update plan details

The changes to the district’s COVID-19 mitigation plan are as follows:

  • If an individual school building reaches more than 3% positive COVID cases or the overall absenteeism related to illness is more than 5%, the building would return to universal masking for at least two weeks.
  • All references to quarantines and contact tracing are removed from the plan because JCDHE is no longer able to provide those services, Hubbard said.
  • The so-called “test to stay” program which had been implemented at the start of the semester as a means to try to keep more students in school is also formally discontinued due to lack of contact tracing capacity.
  • Shawnee Mission will continue to update its COVID-19 dashboard on Mondays with new case rates.

If Johnson County were to remove the current mask mandate for K-6, Shawnee Mission elementary schools will revert to the district’s COVID-19 mitigation plan and the associated thresholds, according to the plan.

Superintendent Michelle Hubbard said under the plan’s latest iteration, all secondary schools would be able to return to optional masking policies starting Wednesday, Feb. 16.

That’s because all the schools presumably fall below the 3% threshold of new cases and 5% absenteeism mark.

For the week ending Feb. 11, the district reported a total of 134 active student exclusions, which include positive and presumed positive cases.

That’s a sharp decline from three weeks ago, when the district reported 919 student exclusions.

The district landed on a threshold of 5% for absenteeism, Hubbard said, because pre-pandemic illness rates typically stood at about 2.6% to 3% and. they wanted to account for slightly higher absences due to the pandemic.

In response to a question from at-large board member Brad Stratton, Hubbard said that if a school reached a threshold to require universal masking it would be communicated on a Monday.

The district could also intervene in the event of an unexpected, large spike in an individual building, she said,.

Principals and district administration would collaborate to make the decision as to whether or not a school needed to return to universal masking, Hubbard said.

Worries about future variants

After board members expressed concerns about how to move forward with unknowns, Holzchuch said the health department is also trying to balance mitigation measures and and drops in new cases.

This comes as waves of the pandemic, fueled by mutating variants of the virus like Delta and Omicron, have repeatedly cropped up every few months, Holzschuh said.

She warned that could happen again in the future.

“Given the way COVID has acted in the last two years, it will surge again with a different variant and that’s the balancing act,” Holzschuh said. “I think that by having these thresholds, it should act as a safety net no matter what variant comes along.”

The board of education unanimously approved the updated COVID-19 plan.