By Noah Taborda – Kansas Reflector
TOPEKA — In removing a mask mandate for students and faculty in the district, Russell County Schools board members questioned the science behind masks and whether they prevent the spread of COVID-19 in school.
The board voted 7-0 on Monday to leave the decision of whether to wear a mask up to the individual effective upon passage, citing low case numbers and increasing sentiment among staff that such a move could be done safely. In the same action, board members chose to do away with temperature checks at the front doors.
According to the Kansas Department of Health and Environment, Russell County has recorded only 13 total new cases since the beginning of March.
Brett Mai, a board of education member for USD 407, said several teachers he had spoken with were ready to get rid of the mask mandate. Mai also noted a recent wave of stomach flu that infected many Russell residents. If masks are effective, he asked, why were they not able to prevent the spread of that outbreak?
“The science is all over the place. … Maybe they worked with Covid, but I know with that strain of stomach flu, it did not matter,” Mai said. “If they wear it, so be it. That’s your right. If I don’t want to wear it, I shouldn’t have to. That’s where I’m at.”
School boards across Kansas are beginning conversations or taking action to modify their COVID-19 restrictions in response to Senate Bill 40. The measure provides school boards the ultimate authority to enact safety protocols and decide learning modality but requires districts to employ the “least restrictive means possible” to achieve the health and safety of those in the building.
The bill — passed by the Legislature and signed by the governor in March — establishes a procedure for individuals to address any grievances against their local school board. Board members must now decide if masks and other safety measures remain a necessary step to ensure the health of students and faculty.
If not, school boards must face complaints. The change in law, concerns about possible litigation, and declining case numbers have sparked some school districts to take immediate action and ease restrictions.
The Centre school district in Marion County chose to roll back its mask mandate Tuesday with only 31 days left in the school year. Larned school district took similar action, leaving the decision up to parents.
Abilene Public Schools chose a more tentative approach, relaxing the policy outside of school buildings.
While cases are declining in some areas of the state, KDHE secretary Lee Norman recently reiterated the need for masks and social distancing as a safeguard against new strains of COVID-19. KDHE announced Tuesday the Brazilian variant of the virus has been found in Sedgwick County. Available vaccines are considered to be less effective against these variants, which are also more easily spread.
Other districts are maintaining a holding pattern. In Garden City, the municipal face-covering requirement was removed in mid-March, but area schools still mandate masks.
Roy Cessna, a spokesman for Garden City Public Schools, said the goal was to ensure students and staff make it through the end of the year without incident.
“Each week, our superintendent has a phone call with the county health department to make the determination of what level we are operating at,” Cessna said. “We’re working to make sure we have on-site instruction, face-to-face learning through the end of the school year.”
Under the bill, employees, students, and parents or guardians of students may seek a hearing with the local board of education within 30 days of any action being taken. Once they have received the complaint, the board must hold a hearing within 72 hours, and a decision must be made within seven days of the hearing.
If the complaining party is unhappy with the response, they may file a civil action in court. The Kansas Supreme Court established Tuesday a set of rules and procedures for legal hearings challenging government actions relating to COVID-19.
The rules are crafted to ensure the challenging parties, who in many cases may not be an attorney, can complete the complaint process.
Many districts, including Garden City, have yet to receive such a complaint. Others are already hearing from parents upset with continuing mask mandates.
In Olathe, the board of education recently maintained the district’s mask mandate following a parent complaint, Fox 4 reported. The decision came after a parent requested their child be exempt from the mask rule. Another parent filed a second complaint following the hearing.
In the Blue Valley district, a Johnson County District Judge dismissed a case brought by Johnson County Commissioner Charlotte O’Hara. O’Hara said she and three other women were unlawfully prevented from attending a board hearing earlier this month because she did not have a face covering.
O’Hara argued that due to hearing impairment caused by tinnitus, she should be exempt from the mask requirement. The district argued Senate Bill 40 could not be applied retroactively to allow this type of challenge because their mask requirement had been in place since the summer, the Shawnee Mission Post reported.
“This is yet another example of performative litigation,” the district’s lawyers argued, ”filed to make a political point or garner publicity for a cause, without regard to the suit’s legal merit.”