SMSD board to consider rolling back COVID-19 policy that ties masking to absence rates

Shawnee Mission students

The Shawnee Mission Board of Education plans to revisit masking thresholds outlined in its COVID-19 mitigation plan. In recent days, seven elementary schools in the district have returned to universal masking because of elevated rates of student absences. Above, two Shawnee Mission elementary students wear masks. File photo.

The Shawnee Mission school board will revisit masking thresholds outlined in the district’s COVID-19 mitigation plan after a seventh school in the last week returned to universal masking because of elevated rates of student absences. 

The board’s discussion could lead to updated protocols and potentially an end to mask requirements that are currently triggered by student absence rates on a school-by-school basis.

Why now? Jamie Borgman, the SM Northwest-area board member, made a surprise motion at a meeting Monday to “remove mask mandates regardless of illness and overall absentee rate effective immediately.”

Currently, any individual building with a COVID-19 positivity rate above 3%, or an overall student illness-related absence rate above 5% is required to return to universal masking. This rule was approved by the board at its Feb. 14 meeting.

The illnesses that trigger a return to masking do not have to be COVID-related.

Seven elementary schools are all back to universal masking, district officials say, after Westwood View brought them back on Monday, April 11. Six schools began last week with masking rules in place.

Borgman expressed confusion as to why students are in masks when “[Johnson County Department of Health and Environment] says [the county is] in the green,” a reference to current levels of COVID-19 spread in the county.

At the end of last week, the Johnson County Department of Health and Environment’s online COVID-19 dashboard reported a percent positivity of 5.3% over the prior seven-day period and an incidence rate of new cases of 53 per 100,000.

Northwest-area board member Jamie Borgman on April 11 made a surprise to remove masks at all schools effective immediately. File photo.

Background: It’s unclear how many, if any, COVID-19 cases have been confirmed at the schools that have brought back masks. For the week ending April 8, SMSD reported 21 active student exclusions due to COVID-19 across the entire district.

Late last week, the Blue Valley school board rescinded a similar districtwide mask rule based student absences over some board members’ concerns that non-COVID-related absences were triggering a return to masking rules.

According to the CDC, Johnson County is currently an area of “low community transmission” of COVID-19.

What’s next: District administration and the board of education will decide when to have the discussion prompted by Borgman’s motion.

Superintendent Michelle Hubbard said staff could prepare something for the board to consider at a special called meeting as early as Wednesday.

No firm decisions on a timeline were made during the meeting. Board of education meetings and agendas can be found online here.

Key quote: “I would love to have the discussion because I think that there are metrics that are saying potentially masks should come off, but I’m just not for it tonight,” said Sara Goodburn, the North-area board member, who explained her vote of opposition was against the way the motion was handled.