Following an order issued by the Johnson County Board of Commissioners on Thursday, the Blue Valley district will mandate masks for students and staff in elementary and middle schools.
In a statement released Thursday, district officials said masks will be required for pre-kindergarten through eighth grade inside school buildings, beginning Monday. Masks will be highly encouraged inside high schools for all students and employees.
That reverses the district’s earlier decision that made masks optional.
“There are two driving forces influencing our decisions as we enter a new school year amid a continuing pandemic: The safety of our students is always paramount, and keeping our students in school — in person — is critical to their long-term success and well-being,” officials said in the announcement.
But earlier on Thursday, the board of the neighboring Shawnee Mission school district approved a mask mandate for all students and staff, K-12, when classes begin next week.
And later that night, the Olathe school board voted to do the same.
The actions followed a vote by the Johnson County Board of Commissioners, which decided 5-2 to mandate masks for public and private schools that teach pre-kindergarten through sixth grade. The board’s order states that middle schools with sixth-graders have to require masks, unless sixth-graders are separated from higher grades throughout the school day.
Blue Valley opted to mandate masks for everyone in middle schools, which house sixth-graders.
The new rules come as Johnson County reports skyrocketing new COVID-19 cases and hospitals reach capacity. Health officials have reported a growing number of cases among children. And nearly 200 physicians penned a letter to the district urging universal masking.
At Thursday’s county board meeting, several physicians, many of them parents in the Blue Valley district, pleaded with the county to mandate masks for all grade levels.
Health officials are urging school districts to take action to protect students as they return to classrooms this month. They worry that the highly contagious delta variant will rapidly spread in classrooms of unvaccinated and unmasked children, leading to mass quarantines and school closures. Children under the age of 12 are not yet eligible for the vaccine.
In Johnson County, only 40% of children ages 12 to 17 are fully vaccinated, health officials said.
The De Soto district also previously agreed to a universal mandate. The Olathe school board was meeting Thursday night to discuss COVID-19 protocols.