OLATHE, Kan. — Younger students in Johnson County will be required to wear masks in the classroom a little while longer.

The Johnson County Board of Commissioners (BOCC) voted 5-2 Thursday to keep the existing mask mandate in place for students in area public schools.

In August, the commission approved an ordinance that requires masking for all students through 6th grade in local school districts. That ordinance will remain in effect through May 31 if it’s not amended or repealed by future commission action.

The commissioners’ vote denied a plea from local health professionals who called for an expansion of school masking rules to include high schools.

About 200 doctors sent commissioners the signed letter, calling on the elected officials to reconsider masking requirements for 7-12 graders as well.

Comments from health officials 

Before accepting public comment, the BOCC received information on COVID case numbers from county health officials.

According to the Johnson County COVID-19 dashboard, roughly 23% of children ages 5-11 were fully vaccinated and 36% were partially vaccinated as of Jan. 6. As of Thursday morning, the dashboard indicated a 23 percent positivity rate across all ages the county. 

Johnson County Public Health Officer Dr. Joseph LeMaster said while the omicron variant is in the area, many hospitals are still treating patients that have tested positive for the delta variant. 

“We are having sort of a double-whammy of hospitalizations. People that were infected a little earlier and had delta infections are now the sickest people in the hospital. Plus new people coming in with the rise in omicron. We would anticipate to see hospitalizations peak, maybe a little further into February,” LeMaster said. 

Dr. Sanmi Areola, director of Johnson County Department of Health and Environment (JCDHE), said it takes a combined effort of masking, social distancing and vaccinations to be able to reduce the risk of spreading the virus in schools. 

“Infection in schools do not drive community spread of the virus. However, as we have consistently said, when infections are this high, it puts a lot of stress on the ability to keep outbreaks out of our schools,” Areola said. “The lower the spread in the community, the easier it is to keep our schools open, the easier it is to keep infections out of our school.” 

Before the meeting the commission received a letter from nine mayors in northwest Johnson County highlighting a need for additional support to combat the virus. 

Mayors representing the cities of Leawood, Mission, Mission Woods, Roeland Park, Prairie Village, Merriam, Westwood Hills, Overland Park and Westwood contributed to the letter. The letter indicates a need for increased testing options, access to high quality masks and additional education on the importance of vaccines.  

Comments from the public 

During a 3-hour public hearing, the commission heard from dozens of residents virtually and in-person. However, unlike previous meetings, people wishing to speak in-person were asked to give their comments through a streaming system in the lower level of the county office building instead of in the BOCC chamber. 

Shad Thompson spoke in person at the meeting Thursday morning. Thompson said he personally considers requiring children to wear masks abusive, and would like the decision to be left up to individual families.

“A majority of people do not want masks, and those that do can still wear them. No one is asking for a mask ban, just mask choice,” Thompson said.

Melissa Gener said she would like to see the masking requirements expanded to include students through 12th grade to keep more students safe.

“We need a K-12, as well as a community-wide mask mandate now. Masks work. Our kids are not in silos and we are at the cusp of a healthcare and educational system collapse. You as leaders need to do everything you can to prevent this collapse from happening here in our community,” Gener said. 

Debbie Detmer said she feels the board’s decision to put masking requirements in place for students was politically motivated. 

“At the very beginning of this pandemic when little was known, it was understandable that the decision aired on the side of perhaps being overly cautious, but that has long since passed. Any COVID restrictions imposed in the last 18 months that weren’t informed by data driven, cost-benefit analysts, were political decisions, not medical or educational decisions,” Detmer said.  

Victor Wishna is a parent of two students in the Blue Valley School District. He said he also supports extending the mask order though the 12th grade. 

“Our enemy is COVID, not one another. There are no sides here. I’m not pro-masks. Nobody likes masks, but masks work, not 100 percent, but they help. And when our hospitals are overrun and our schools are just a couple sick teachers away from shutting down, we, and especially you, need to do the simple things we can to help,” Wishna said.  

Health order alternatives 

Prior to the decision to maintain masking requirements, commissioners reviewed multiple options to amend the health order. 

Commissioner Charlotte O’Hara proposed adding an amendment to the health order to allow school districts the option to opt-out of the county masking requirement for students through sixth grade. The motion failed 2-5. 

Commissioner Janee Hanzlick moved to amend the health order to expand masking requirements to include students through 12th grade. That amendment would have kept masking requirements in place for six weeks or until the county-wide COVID-19 positivity rate dropped below 10%. The motion failed 3-4. 

O’Hara said she believes any action to expand masking would be ignored by local school districts.

“The school districts that want the mask mandates, they’re going to have it,” she said. “The school districts such as Spring Hill, they’re going to find ways around it.”

Commissioner Jeff Meyers shared his inner-turmoil over the question of mandating masks across all ages in public school, but ultimately said he supported it.

“I think we need to send that message not only to our schools but to our hospital workers, to the hospitals themselves, we’re trying to take steps beyond to help mitigate,” Meyers said.

Following board discussion — and after voting down the mask mandate for all grades — the BOCC voted in favor of allowing the existing mask rule to remain in place. It will be reviewed in six weeks.

The BOCC will review data on COVID-19 infection rates and current vaccination numbers during the next regular meeting on Thursday, Feb. 17 at 9:30 a.m.