Johnson County, KS considering mandate of mask in elementary schools

Johnson County health officials are proposing a health ordinance that would require private and public elementary schools to require masks for all students and staff.

The Johnson County Council of Commissioners will vote on the proposal at its meeting Thursday morning, according to the council’s agenda. The proposed order comes as the Delta variant skyrockets COVID-19 cases. And despite recommendations from health officials, several school districts have been slow or unwilling to impose the masks themselves.

If approved by the board, the ordinance would require masks inside schools with students as old as sixth grade. Colleges with sixth-graders should also require masks, unless sixth-graders are separated from upper classes throughout the school day.

The goal is to protect students under 12, who are not yet eligible to receive the vaccine. The terms of reference would also include all staff and visitors to primary schools. Masks would be mandatory on school buses, but not outside. The ordinance includes exemptions for certain medical and religious reasons.

If approved, the ordinance would be in effect from August 9 to May 31, 2022, unless amended or revoked.

Throughout the pandemic, Johnson County health officials have confined themselves to offering advice to districts, leaving many difficult decisions to school officials. It is the first health order with a proposed school-only mandate in Johnson County.

There was speculation that commissioners would consider a county-wide mask warrant on Thursday, after Kansas City, where an indoor mask warrant went into effect on Monday. But the board’s agenda does not show a proposal for a county-wide term, and last Thursday President Ed Eilert said he was hesitant to approve one.

County spokeswoman Jody Hanson confirmed the elementary school’s mandate was the only proposal on Thursday’s agenda.

The county lifted its previous mask mandate at the end of April. But the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention recently recommended that even vaccinated people wear masks indoors in parts of the United States where the coronavirus is on the rise, including Missouri and Kansas.

Health officials have warned that COVID-19 cases are on the rise among young residents and children, driven by the highly contagious delta variant. This summer, the county reported several outbreaks associated with summer camp programs and daycare centers, leading to the closure of some of them.

The Johnson County Health Department had previously recommended that school districts only require masks for unvaccinated students and staff. But since then, agencies have started advising schools to follow more stringent protocols. The CDC is urging schools to require masks for all students and staff, regardless of their immunization status.

On Monday, De Soto District became the first in Johnson County to impose masks for everyone. The Shawnee Mission District decided last week to impose masks in elementary schools and strongly recommends them only for older students. Staff members can withdraw from the mandate by showing proof of vaccination.

Across all districts, several administrators have expressed frustration at having to decide how to keep children safe in school buildings as the virus increases and the county does not have a mandate of its own. Some called on the health authorities to intervene.

“Public schools should not make the decision to hide or not hide our students. School administrators and elected school board members should not be making this decision, ”Shawnee Mission Superintendent Michelle Hubbard said at last week’s meeting. “We have all been placed in an extremely difficult situation, being left to be the only line of defense for this virus. If public health is really at stake, then public health officials should be allowed to make this decision. ”

Schools face continued protests, as parents fight for the choice of sending their child to school with or without a mask.

Other districts in the county have so far made masks optional, although they continue to assess the trend of cases and, even without a county order, may issue new rules before school starts this month. Many students will be returning to class on August 12.

County documents show the vaccination rate among 12 to 17 year olds is less than 40%.

Last week, more than 900 cases of COVID-19 were reported, a significant jump from the 67 cases reported in the last week of May.

The Johnson County Council of Commissioners meets at 9:30 a.m. on Thursday.

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Sarah Ritter covers Johnson County for The Kansas City Star. A former Quad-City Times reporter Sarah is a graduate of Augustana College.

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