SHAWNEE, Kan. — Following a contentious Shawnee Mission School District board meeting Monday, the district’s superintendent on Tuesday said that their optional mask mandate for middle and high school students might not end up being so optional after all.

Superintendent Dr. Michelle Hubbard said during the University of Kansas Health System daily Facebook program that masking all depends on the COVID-19 case count among students, teachers, and staff.

If that number is too high a fail-safe kicks in and brings in a masking mandate.

The automatic mask mandates would happen on a school-by-school basis. If COVID-19-related case count (confirmed cases, presumed cases, or quarantines) hit 3% of a school population the mask mandate returns for that school for at least two week, Hubbard said.

The current issue is that the last time that COVID-19 data was collected was December 17. Students are coming back to school on Wednesday.

A small group of people shouting during Monday’s board meeting derailed plans to keep the discussion in-person.

But the vote to continue forward with mask-optional rules in middle and high schools won the night.

The challenges within the district, however, look like they’ll get worse before they get better.

“We’ve actually struggled with staffing all year long,” Hubbard said.

The district started the school year down 250 employees mostly in food service, transportation, and substitute teachers. The district now has incentive pay programs but it’s not expected to better the issue short-term, Hubbard said.

“It’ll be all hands on deck for the next month. I mean there are times when people at the district office have to roll into schools and roll up their sleeves and support our teachers so they can support kids in the classroom,” Hubbard said.

“We’re not going to be focusing on contact tracing because quite frankly with the number of cases we can’t keep up,” Hubbard said, referencing a conversation with Johnson County Health officials.

Local health leaders said generally they are skeptical that district having mask optional rules will make challenges in the district any easier.

“But those opinions really are not supported by the scientific data that and the scientific facts in the understanding that we know that they are safe for adults and children. They do not get health consequences from them. But I think the most important thing Steve [Stites], and we’ve talked about this, the importance of continuing to be in school,” Dr. Dana Hawkinson, Infectious Disease Specialist for the University of Kansas Health System, said.

Masks in the Shawnee Mission School District are still mandated at the Pre-K through the 6th grade level. Before the holiday break three of those schools were above that 3% COVID-19 case level, Hubbard said.

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