USD 232 in De Soto makes masks optional for all students starting Tuesday

USD 232 will allow optional masks in all its buildings, pre-K through 12th grade, starting Tuesday, Feb. 22. Individual buildings could be required to go back to universal masking if COVID-19-related student absences exceed 5%. File photo courtesy USD 232.

Following the Johnson County Board of Commissioners’ decision Thursday afternoon to lift a mask mandate for K-6 schools, USD 232 in De Soto on Friday adopted new criteria that allow for optional masking.

That means all three public school districts in the Post’s coverage area currently or will soon allow for optional masking at all their facilities.

USD 232 masking change

Starting when students return from the long Presidents’ Day weekend on Tuesday, Feb. 22, masks will be optional for all pre-kindergarten through 12th grade buildings in De Soto, as long as a school’s absences related to COVID-19 (including student quarantines and isolations) remains below 5%.

In a virtual special meeting Friday morning, the USD 232 Board of Education voted 5-2 to adopt the new criteria. School board members Bill Fletcher and Stephanie Makalous voted no.

According to the motion, if a particular school building’s COVID-related absences exceeds 5%, then masks will be required for that building until those types of absences return to below 5% for one week.

The school board’s decision came a day after the Johnson County Board of County Commissioners decided to lift a mask mandate for K-6 schools.

Commissioners on Thursday voted 6-1 to drop the mandate. Masks had been required for all school buildings in the county — public and private — serving students up to and including sixth graders, since August 2021 and was set to expire May 31.

A previous USD 232 policy required masks in individual buildings if the percentage of students in quarantine or isolation due to COVID-19 rose above 2%.\

Board discussion

Much of the school board’s debate Friday hinged on the district’s previous policy of requiring masks in buildings when the percentage of student absences for recommended isolations and quarantines exceeded 4%.

Here’s the previous protocol: “Masks would remain optional if the weekly percentage of recommended quarantines and isolations does not exceed four percent (4%) of a school’s student enrollment. If the percentage of recommended quarantines and isolations is greater than four percent (4%), barrier face masks will be required for at least two weeks and the percentage of recommended quarantines and isolations is less than two percent (2%) for two consecutive weeks.”

Most of the board members wanted to loosen that standard.

“Nobody wants to keep re-masking kids and unmasking them; I know that’s why we made our threshold at 4%,” said board member Brandi Jonasson. “But I also don’t want another week where we have to close a school because we can’t find enough subs, too.”

Other board members wanted to ensure the school district could keep students in school as much as possible, and avoid unnecessary building closures that could risk students falling behind. Others expressed concern over the burden of finding substitute teachers (which has been a struggle during the pandemic).

Fletcher, one of board members who voted against the new criteria, said he wanted to return to a completely optional masking policy and that the district should allow the county to serve as a guidepost for future mask mandates.

“I just say let’s just do away with it [masks],” Fletcher said.

Makalous shared some concerns that if the criteria only pertains to COVID-related absences, that some families will decline to report accurate information. In an email to the Post, she added that she voted no because the district reports information to the county health department, and she noted that the health department has measures in place to manage communicable diseases such as the flu.

“I feel like we’re on the other end of this pandemic,” Makalous said. “Everybody, well not everyone, most people or students in our buildings have had the opportunity to get vaccinated, so it helps in that if they do get COVID, it’s more likely to be a sinus infection, not something deadly. So I feel like we need to rely on our health departments to make those guidelines.”

New SMSD and BVSD policies

School boards in the Shawnee Mission and Blue Valley school districts earlier this week also adjusted those districts’ mask rules as new cases in Johnson County continue to rapidly decline.

Blue Valley made masks optional in all its facilities starting Tuesday, two days before the county formally rolled back its K-6 school mask order.

Under a policy approved Monday, Shawnee Mission will make masks optional for all students starting Wednesday, Feb. 23, when they return from a long holiday weekend.