Schools relax mask mandates

USD 257 school board members say they are 'offended' state lawmakers are essentially forcing them to relax face mask requirements. A new law requires school boards to very quickly hear complaints, which could be filed in district court.

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April 13, 2021 - 9:54 AM

Photo by Celia Llopis Jepsen / Kansas News Service / kcur.org

After venting frustration about state lawmakers and a new law, USD 257 board members voted 6-1 to change their mask mandate from “required” to “recommended.”

“It offends me,” said school board President Dan Willis about the new law, which requires school districts to use the least restrictive means possible to provide a safe learning environment during an emergency.

The law requires the district to hear grievances within a short period of time, and complaints can be filed with the district court. Some districts that kept mask mandates already have been battling complaints since the law became effective March 25.

“We do a lot of tough actions all year long. Now we can’t make a tough decision without the threat of district court,” Willis said.

Willis voted in favor of rolling back the mask mandate, along with daily temperature checks, but said he was still offended the state had essentially tied their hands.

SAFE BASE director Angela Henry talks about plans for summer trips. Photo by Vickie Moss / Iola Register

Nancy Toland was the lone board member to vote against the change, though most board members said they felt pressured to vote for it.

The county’s health officer, Rebecca Johnson, recommends schools keep their mask mandates. Only about 10% of county residents have been fully vaccinated against COVID-19. State statistics show 28% of residents have received at least the first dose of the vaccine.

About 60% of teachers and staff have been vaccinated.

“I’m really disappointed,” Toland said. “We’ve been so very successful. Many students and teachers were unhappy about wearing masks but they got over it and did it. We’ve been very fortunate to have few cases.

“I’m very upset with the legislature tying the hands of public health officials during a worldwide pandemic.”

Board member Jen Taylor agreed: “They talk about local control but back us in a corner if we try to do anything. I commend our students and teachers. You’ve done a phenomenal job. But to have a recommendation from a county health officer and disregard it, I think it’s frustrating.”

Superintendent Stacey Fager announced last week he would ask the board to make the change in order to comply with the new state law. Since then, principals and teachers have sent letters to parents, asking them to confirm whether they would like their student to keep wearing masks.

Since Fager’s announcement, most students at Iola High School have stopped wearing masks, Principal Scott Carson said.

Still, student athletes will be required to follow guidelines from the Kansas State High School Activities Association, which require them to wear masks at certain times.

The board gave themselves some leeway, adding a clause that allows them to revisit the issue should local cases increase.

They also ended daily temperature checks, after principals said they caught little to no incidents of fever.

During the meeting, all board members except one continued to wear masks, as did others in attendance.

SAFE BASE

Some students will be allowed to go on a high-flying adventure this summer as part of SAFE BASE activities.

The board voted last month to bring back the summer program for four weeks for students in kindergarten through eighth grade. The program will focus on activities related to specific careers.

On Monday, board members approved SAFE BASE director Angela Henry’s request for a trip to Atchison and Kansas City for older students to learn about aviation. 

The trip will include a tour of a museum in Atchison dedicated to Amelia Earhart and a hike and zipline tour in Kansas City.

The zipline has a minimum weight requirement, so Henry said she’s not sure if fourth-graders will qualify but most fifth grade through eighth grade students will be allowed.

IN OTHER news, the school board:

Approved summer maintenance projects, including a request to seek bids to replace a dust collector in the high school woodshop; allow a $6,080 bid to spray insulation on the ceiling at the woodshop; and agreed to spend $78,340 for a new bus. Other summer projects include carpeting and LED lighting upgrades.

Heard an update on school construction projects. (See Wednesday’s Register for more details.)

Heard about plans for a golf tournament July 10 as a fundraiser for school athletics.

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