The Shawnee Mission school district will require its elementary students to wear masks this fall — making it the only district in Johnson County with a mask mandate for children who are not yet eligible for the COVID-19 vaccine.
The other five school districts in the county have so far made masks optional, and only strongly encourage unvaccinated students and staff to wear them. Monday night’s decision by the school board means Shawnee Mission is the only school system following the county’s advice on opening schools safely next month.
In the rest of the Kansas City metro, Shawnee Mission is now the third district to require masks for at least some students. Kansas City Public Schools and the Kansas City, Kansas district plan to require everyone to wear masks.
The school board voted 6-1 to require masks in elementary schools, but keep them optional in middle and high schools. The decision came after a grim warning from Johnson County Epidemiologist Elizabeth Holzschuh, who said that COVID-19 cases have increased 300% in the past four weeks, driven by the highly contagious delta variant.
The decision is mostly consistent with how the district has navigated the pandemic so far. It has taken a more cautious approach than some of its neighboring systems, beginning last school year with all students learning online and sports temporarily suspended.
Cases among children continue to rise in the metro. And on Monday, Children’s Mercy reported that its hospital has reached capacity because of coronavirus and other childhood diseases.
Also on Monday, Johnson County confirmed that a summer camp, hosted by the county’s park and recreation district and held at a Shawnee elementary school, was forced to shut down after 10 coronavirus cases were reported out of the class of 24. Health officials said that while masks were recommended, many of the elementary-aged children were not wearing them.
Holzschuh said the incident shows how the delta variant would spread in a classroom of unmasked elementary-aged students.
“If you take masks away at these school levels, we will see widespread transmission. I am confident of that,” she said, explaining that the spread of the virus in schools was largely prevented last year because everyone wore masks. Without them, she warned that holding in-person school could become increasingly difficult within the first week of the new semester because of inevitable outbreaks.
“We’re seeing that evidence through all of the summer outbreaks that we’re seeing, and in particular (the summer camp) is the perfect example of what will happen,” Holzschuh said. “It is the example of an elementary school classroom. Twenty-four kids in a class, all day, every day. No masks. Forty-two percent of them were ill within one week.”
With COVID-19 cases surging and hospitals reaching capacity, Johnson County health officials advised districts to require masks for unvaccinated individuals when school begins next month. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention has recommended the same, while the American Academy of Pediatrics has gone further and suggested universal masking in schools.
But the decision on whether to mandate masks is a difficult one for districts, which are trying to balance student safety against mounting political and community pressure. Districts have questioned whether they can enforce such mandates when vaccine hesitancy and anti-mask rhetoric has grown so strong.
Several parents on Monday urged the school board not to require masks, saying that they were concerned for their children’s mental health. Others protested outside of the meeting, including some who held signs saying wearing a mask should be a choice, or that went as far as comparing mandates to child abuse.
Also on Monday, at a meeting of the Spring Hill school board, Superintendent Wayne Burke explained that masks will be optional this fall in his smaller district. He said that without a countywide mask mandate, students continue to play sports, shop and go elsewhere in the county without wearing masks.
“Risk is part of school every day. When we put kids out on a playground, there’s a risk. When you send your kids to school every day, there’s a risk. And this is a risk,” Burke said. “There’s going to be quite a few people that disagree with me. I’m just not sure how we tell kids, all summer long who have been able to freely go about their business, that all of a sudden now they need to stick a mask on.”
Holzschuh acknowledged that Shawnee Mission, with roughly 27,000 students, has different factors to consider than smaller districts, such as Spring Hill, with about 3,300 students.
Despite rising cases, Johnson County health officials have so far said they are not yet considering a county mask mandate.
Shelby Rebeck, director of health services for Shawnee Mission, said last week that within the district’s boundaries, vaccination rates among eligible children range from 20% to 30%.
School board member Brad Stratton cast the only vote against requiring elementary students to wear masks.
“Our goal is seeing our kids every day for in-person learning, where they learn the best and we are able to get them what they need from an education perspective,” school board president Heather Ousley said.
Shawnee Mission officials voiced concerns about mandating masks for unvaccinated middle and high schoolers, because that would require teachers and other staff members to check vaccination cards and enforce the rule in the classroom. Rebeck previously said that policing the mandate would be a heavy burden to place on employees.
When the school year begins on Aug. 12, district officials said that elementary students will continue to stay in smaller groups or “cohorts,” that do not intermingle, and will sit in assigned seats at lunch. Middle and high schools, though, will no longer require cohorting, social distancing or group size limits.
In sports and activities, unvaccinated individuals will be strongly encouraged to wear masks. Officials will try to keep students in cohorts as often as possible. And performing arts students will be told to keep three feet of physical distance while rehearsing indoors.
The district will continue to regularly test for the virus, and follow the health department’s guidance on quarantining after any virus exposure. Students and staff who show proof of vaccination would be exempt from quarantining in many circumstances.
Holzschuh warned that as COVID-19 cases continue to increase, Johnson County is returning to infection levels last seen during peaks this past fall and winter.
In Johnson County, the positivity rate — or the percentage of positive COVID-19 tests in the past 14 days — was 7.8% on Monday. That’s the highest the rate has been since January, and up from a low of about 1.5% in early June.
District officials emphasized that they will continue to monitor the trend in cases, and that decisions on safety protocols could change at any time.