Derby Public Schools will continue to mandate masks at its facilities through the end of the semester as part of its COVID-19 safety protocols.
The Derby Board of Education voted 4-3 on Monday to continue enforcing the mask policy through the last two-and-a-half months of the 2020-2021 school year after nearly an hour of discussion.
“We don’t want to start jogging at the end of the race,” Board Vice President Folkerts said. “This is the first time we’ve been in the green all year. I just feel like it’s too soon.”
Prior to the vote, Superintendent Heather Bohaty said Sedgwick County is “highly encouraging” and requiring masks unless the school board chooses to opt out of the county mask mandate.
Bohaty also advised that if two people are wearing a mask and one tests positive for the coronavirus, the other person is considered low-risk and doesn’t necessarily have to quarantine. If either person is not wearing a mask, it could mean the other person has to quarantine for 10 days.
“If one person is not wearing their mask, either case or close contact, then they are not allowed to do the modified in-school quarantine,” said Bohaty, reading a statement from Adrienne Byrne, director of the Sedgwick County Health Department. “Everyone must be wearing their masks for this to be allowed.”
Nicki Seeley, director of special services, said the district has had “minimal if [any] close contacts since February because all of the students and teachers are wearing that mask in the classroom.”
The district sent out a survey to staff members and parents in Derby Public Schools to gauge public opinion about continuing to mandate masks. The results indicated over 90% of district leadership support continuing the mask mandate, between 54 to 60% of staff support the mandate, and up to 43.6% of parent respondents support it.
All staff - certified and classified
Joel Addis, president of the Derby National Education Association, encouraged the district to continue mandating masks based on the survey results.
“One thing that I’m always able to say proudly is that teachers have a voice in this district,” he said. “I’m here asking that that trend continue this evening.”
Citing the survey results, board member Justin Kippenberger said the district should also weigh parent input, while acknowledging staff concerns about being exposed to students without masks during the school day.
“The majority, at least from our survey of parents, are wanting us to at least consider not banning masks, but just letting them have the option to choose what’s best for their kids at this time,” he said.
Board member Matthew Joyce said he doesn’t want students to miss in-person instruction because they have to quarantine, something he said upset parents when cases were higher in the district.
“I can’t tell you how many parents emailed me. They were so upset that their kids were being quarantined because they were inside this bubble,” he said. “The easiest way would be to just keep everybody’s masks on … and keep moving forward. Everybody’s just splitting hairs.”
Kippenberger agreed that he doesn’t want more people to have to quarantine; however, he said, cases have declined significantly in the district’s recent COVID-19 reports.
“I don’t know why taking a mask away – that we would all of the sudden see a whole bunch of cases show up because we were seeing all those cases with masks the whole time [in the fall],” Kippenberger said.
The district’s weekly new cases have been on a steady decline since the end of January. The district reported 35 new cases in February, less than a third of the 111 cases reported in January.
The district’s most recent weekly COVID-19 update, posted on Friday, March 12, only included one new student case and one new staff case.
Kippenberger said the board could always go back and vote to require masks again if cases suddenly spike.
“While keeping everybody safe is definitely the goal, we also have to decide: when is safe safe enough?” he said.
Lorraine Alvarado, a physician at Family MedCenter, said masks are part of the reason cases are going down in the district.
“Taking off the masks is going to move us backwards,” she said. “There are some things coming up that we don’t want our students to be quarantined from: graduation, perhaps prom.”
Board member Pamela Doyle said that making masks optional would render them less effective, as they are meant to protect others from someone who is unknowingly positive.
“I think we ride it out and everybody hope and pray that come fall we can do away with [masks],” she said.
Doyle also said if the district made masks optional, it would need to allow parents to change their students’ modes of learning mid-semester, which could create a “logistical nightmare” for staff and students.
“We have parents who made the decision on their modality based on what the protocols are now,” she said.
Bohaty said many parents responded in the survey that they would want to change modes of learning if masks were no longer mandatory.
Derby High School Principal Tim Hamblin said a majority of courses at the high school are synchronous, meaning in-person and online students learn at the same pace in the same classrooms.
“It would not be easy by any stretch, but we would have less of a challenge in such a situation than elementary schools,” he said.
Board President Andy Watkins said district staff would be able to handle additional changes to modes of learning that might arise in the event the district discontinued its mask mandate.
“We’ve done a lot of logistical things on the fly this year,” he said. “From going remote at the beginning of December, all those things – to me, this seems like something we could manage based on everything they’ve done.”
“I don’t see that as a huge issue, based on the ability of our staff.”
Board members Folkerts, Joyce, Doyle and Tina Prunier voted in favor of continuing the mask policy, with Kippenberger, Watkins and Mark Tillison opposed.
Recent action by the Kansas Legislature and Gov. Laura Kelly, who signed Senate Bill 40 into law this week, led the Sedgwick County Commission to reassess its current emergency public health orders at a meeting on March 24.
With the stipulations of the bill presenting a number of obstacles to keeping the county’s pandemic-related health orders in place, the commission ultimately moved to rescind them immediately and approve a resolution recommending – but not enforcing – many of the same health and safety guidelines. That includes wearing of masks and social distancing – with business organizations encouraged to keep such requirements in place – as well as individuals becoming vaccinated against COVID-19 once eligible.
Both motions were approved on a 3-2 vote after a good deal of discussion regarding what the new legislation could do, as well as the lack of enforcement.
Assistant County Counselor Justin Waggoner summarized SB 40 for the commissioners, which applies to different parties under the Kansas Emergency Management Act relating to public health responses to infections disease (not just COVID-19).
For the county specifically, Waggoner noted there were two main issues of concern – the higher standard the bill set for local health orders (which would have to be approved by the county commission) and the expedited hearing requirements for related lawsuits.
“The practical effect of this is there would be a low bar for someone to be an aggrieved party because any aggrieved party could file a lawsuit and get a hearing in 72 hours,” Waggoner said.
In turn, Waggoner pointed out that the county could be opened up to several lawsuits – simply from those individuals not wanting to wear masks or socially distance – which could potentially overwhelm the court system. That led county staff to recommend the resolution with guidelines instead of orders.
No action needed to be taken, but the commission saw the writing on the wall – as the passage of SB 40 essentially nullified the county’s public health orders.
Commissioner Jim Howell spoke in favor of the legislation and the need for the governing body to take ownership over the public health decisions being made for the county, supporting the move to recommendations rather than orders.
“I think it’s time for us to do what we should have done all along. I think we need to push the policy from the county commission and the right policy for today is to ask people to be responsible for themselves. They have many options for their own health,” Howell said. “At some point, it’s time to stand up and trust our citizens to make choices for themselves and I think that day is today. I would love to see us move forward as a commission and be in charge of making policy for Sedgwick County.”
Fellow commissioners Sarah Lopez and Lacey Cruse raised concerns about setting policy based on potential litigation alluded to by county staff, strongly urging that the mask mandate stay in effect.
Lopez stated she would only be in favor of removing the mask mandate if the county did everything possible to move into phase five of the statewide vaccination plan.
Meanwhile, Cruse stated her disbelief that the commission would be discussing the mask mandate again “so close to the finish line.” Instead of dissolving the orders, Cruse suggested the commission work to tailor new orders to avoid as much litigation as possible.
“Let’s make a mask mandate that clearly complies with the standards of this new statute, not simply throw up our hands and say it’s impossible when it is very clearly possible,” Cruse said. “This statute shouldn’t scare us into shying away from our duty to our community to prevent another shutdown because we cannot afford that.”
While Cruse also brought into question the severity of litigious threats, Commission Chairman Pete Meitzner reported those threats to be “very real,” having had conversations about lawsuits ready to be filed against schools districts, Sedgwick County and more.
A substitute motion sought more input from local health officer Dr. Garold Minns and other health officials before taking action, but the county commission approved the recommended resolution as presented by county staff with the amendment that it become active immediately as of March 24 and have an end date after 90 days (with the option for renewal).
Though the county's orders were put to an end, SB 40 will not fully go into effect until after March 31 – meaning the governor's executive order requiring masks in public places will remain in place until then.