Parents in the Blue Valley School District who are also physicians on the front lines of the COVID-19 pandemic expressed frustration and disbelief after learning masks will be optional when students return to the classroom next month.
The decision stands in contrast to the positions of other large districts in the Kansas City metropolitan area as COVID-19 cases rise. The Kansas City, Kansas, school district announced that masks will be required for all students and staff. Kansas City Public Schools is expected to take the same approach.
But Blue Valley and other school districts have taken a looser stance, encouraging but not requiring masking, even as cases in the county have jumped. With one week to go, Johnson County has added 1,473 new COVID-19 cases in July — already more than May and June combined, according to data from the county health department.
The positive test rate, which hit a low of 1.3% in early June, has climbed to 7.6%.
“I’m really upset and frustrated that the Blue Valley School District in particular is not going to be mandating masks,” said physician and parent Sarah Dubin.
Dubin was one of 100 area doctors who signed a letter pleading with school districts to require masks for students under age 12, who are not eligible for the vaccine. Clinical trials are underway for younger kids, but approval is not expected until this winter or next year.
She worried about her 6-year-old, who will start first grade at a Blue Valley elementary school in August. But she also said masking and vaccination are about keeping the community safe.
Masks in schools
Recently, the American Academy of Pediatrics recommended universal masking for the coming school year. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention issued guidance for schools saying people who are not fully vaccinated should wear masks.
Several parents in the district have argued against mask mandates, saying it should be a personal choice made by families.
But Blue Valley’s decision was all the more frustrating for Dubin, a pulmonary and critical care physician at a Kansas City hospital. She has seen how COVID-19 can ravage the body, leaving people on ventilators, dying alone.
“We continue to have only unvaccinated patients in the hospital and those patients that also do not appear to believe in masking,” Dubin said. “I wish that people understood what we all see every day.”
As the delta variant spreads in the Kansas City area, Dubin said “we are starting to cycle back into having more patients in the hospital, more patients that are on ventilators.”
In addition to patients who become critically ill, Dubin said there are other considerations.
“It is not just about dying,” she said. “It’s about the long term effects of COVID. It’s about patients being on oxygen long term, about patients being disabled long-term because of COVID. And I don’t think that we know exactly what long-term COVID looks like in our pediatric population in particular. But if at all mirrors what we see in the adult population, it can be debilitating and disabling.”
Risks to children
In Kansas, more than 13,800 cases have been recorded in children age zero to nine, according to the state health department. Another 27,450 youth age 10 to 17 have contracted COVID-19.
Physician Johanna Finkel has three children in the Blue Valley Scool District. At ages 5, 8 and 11, they are too young to get vaccinated.
Finkel said she was appalled at how the district was handling the masking issue. She also signed the letter that was sent to area school districts.
“I would expect that they would take a more public health approach to this matter since it is of utter importance that we all stand together against the continued COVID pandemic and especially in light of the new delta variant,” she said. “I expect more from the Blue Valley district in terms of a universal mask mandate which is supported and recommended by the American Academy of Pediatrics.”
Finkel also said she preferred in-person learning, but that the school district was risking shutdowns by not requiring masks.
The school district did not respond to a request for comment on this story.