By SUZANNE PEREZ, Kansas Press Service
WICHITA, Kansas (AP) – Most schoolchildren and teachers in Kansas, whether or not they have been vaccinated against COVID-19, will not be required to wear face masks next school year.
Schools are under pressure to return to more normal operations before the pandemic. But officials say they are ready to pivot – including reinstating mask warrants – if the pandemic worsens significantly.
“If adjustments to our plan are needed,” said Alicia Thompson, superintendent of the state’s largest school district in Wichita, “we will bring our pandemic leadership team together to recommend adjustments. “
She said her district weighed current data on infection rates, along with advice from local health officials and feedback from a community survey, to develop the district plan.
As of this month at schools in Wichita, masks are optional. Vaccines are not compulsory. And regular activities will resume, including volunteers and visitors to schools.
Several large Johnson County districts, including Olathe and Blue Valley, have also lifted mask warrants that had been in place for more than a year.
The Kansas News Service reports that this is a controversial call. Health officials recommend wearing the mask indoors for people who are not fully vaccinated or have weakened immune systems. And children under 12 are not eligible to be vaccinated.
Meanwhile, the new, more infectious Delta variant of the virus now accounts for 80% of coronavirus cases in the state and nearly all new hospitalizations.
Less than half of Kansans eligible for vaccination have been vaccinated.
A few large districts, including Shawnee Mission in Johnson County, have yet to decide on masks for this fall.
Spokesman David Smith said heads of the Shawnee mission “always seek clear advice” from health officials on masks and other COVID protocols, especially for vulnerable populations in elementary schools.
The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention has recommended schools continue to use COVID-19 prevention strategies, including masks and social distancing, throughout the past school year. The CDC released new guidelines on Friday giving vaccinated students the option to attend classes without a mask in the fall while their unvaccinated classmates continue to wear masks.
Wichita school board member Ben Blankley said continued precautions, especially with unvaccinated elementary school students, could prevent outbreaks and associated quarantines.
“I would hate to be in a situation where we are sending entire classes to quarantine and again disrupting the livelihoods of a bunch of people just because we decided that special pandemic precautions were unpopular with some people.” , did he declare.
Brent Lewis, president of the Wichita teachers’ union, said he agreed with the decision to make face masks optional. Leaders are trying to balance concerns about COVID-19 with a desire to keep schools open and comfortable, he said.
But he fears that possible epidemics could lead to widespread quarantines. Federal law does not require districts to grant paid time off to employees sick with COVID-19, in quarantine, or caring for someone with COVID, so teachers should use their personal time off.
It is not known how many of Wichita’s 4,200 teachers are vaccinated, but Lewis said about three-quarters signed up for the vaccines when they were made available this spring.
In Olathe, Superintendent John Allison said masks would be “strongly encouraged but not required” for students, staff and visitors.
Board member LeEtta Felter asked how it would be in classrooms if some parents wanted their children to be masked.
“I don’t want to unduly burden our teachers with being the masked Gestapo,” she said. “How are we going to accommodate a family’s preference for their child to wear a mask… and (not) be bullied?” “
Allison said principals will talk about strategies before school starts this fall.
“We do not tolerate bullying for any reason,” he said. “The masks would adapt to that.”
Thompson, the Wichita superintendent, said COVID-19 has taught school districts and families to be flexible. The protocol for the return of students on August 12 could change.
“We can say with confidence that we have now led a pandemic, but none of us have yet led the exit from a pandemic,” she said. “There will be a lot of lessons to be learned over the next year. “
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