Most Kansas schools ditching mask rules even as Delta variant is driving a COVID-19 resurgence

By Suzanne Perez
Kansas News Service
Wichita students were required to wear masks at summer school programs. Masks are now optional for all students, teachers and visitors.

WICHITA — Most Kansas schoolchildren and teachers, regardless of whether they’ve been vaccinated against COVID-19, won’t be required to wear face masks next school year.

Schools find themselves under pressure to return to more normal, pre-pandemic operations. But officials say they stand ready to pivot — including reinstating mask mandates — if the pandemic worsens dramatically.

“Should adjustments to our plan be required,” said Alicia Thompson, superintendent of the state’s largest school district in Wichita, “we will bring our pandemic leadership team back together to recommend adjustments.”

She said her district weighed current data on infection rates, along with guidance from local health officials and feedback from a community survey, to craft the district’s plan.

Starting this month in Wichita schools, masks are optional. Vaccinations are not required. And regular activities will resume, including volunteers and visitors in schools.

Several large districts in Johnson County, including Olathe and Blue Valley, also lifted mask mandates that had been in place more than a year.

It’s a controversial call. Health officials recommend mask wearing while indoors for people who aren’t fully vaccinated or who have a compromised immune system. And children younger than 12 aren’t eligible to get a vaccine.

Meanwhile, the new, more-infectious Delta variant of the virus now accounts for 80% of coronavirus cases in the state and for nearly all new hospitalizations.

Fewer than half of Kansans eligible for vaccinations have been inoculated.

A few large districts, including Shawnee Mission in Johnson County, have yet to decide on masks for this fall.

Spokesman David Smith said Shawnee Mission leaders are “still looking for some clear guidance” from health officials on masks and other COVID protocols, especially for vulnerable elementary school populations.

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention recommended that schools continue to use COVID-19 prevention strategies, including masks and social distancing, through the last school year.

The agency has not released guidance for the coming year. The CDC website says to look for updated guidance “in the coming weeks.”

Wichita school board member Ben Blankley said continued precautions, particularly with unvaccinated elementary-schoolers, could prevent outbreaks and related quarantines.

“I’d hate to be in a situation where we send entire classrooms out on quarantine and disrupt a bunch of people’s livelihoods again just because we decided that particular pandemic precautions were unpopular with some people,” he said.

Brent Lewis, president of the Wichita teachers union, said he agrees with the decision to make face masks optional. Leaders are trying to balance COVID-19 concerns with a desire to keep schools open and comfortable, he said.

But he worries that possible outbreaks could lead to widespread quarantines. Federal law does not require districts to provide paid leave to employees who are sick with COVID-19, under quarantine or caring for someone with COVID, so teachers would have to use their personal leave time.

It’s unclear how many of Wichita’s 4,200 teachers are vaccinated, but Lewis said about three-fourths signed up for vaccines when they were made available this spring.

In Olathe, superintendent John Allison said masks will be “highly encouraged but not required” for students, staff and visitors.

Board member LeEtta Felter asked how that will play out in classrooms if some parents want their children masked.

“I don’t want to unduly burden our teachers with being the mask gestapo,” she said. “How will we accommodate a family’s preference for their child to wear a mask ... and (have) no bullying?”

Allison said school leaders will talk about strategies before school starts this fall.

“We don’t tolerate bullying for whatever reason,” he said. “Masks would fit into that.”

Thompson, the Wichita superintendent, said COVID-19 taught school districts and families to be flexible. The protocol when students return Aug. 12 could change.

“We can say with confidence that we have now led in a pandemic, but none of us yet have led coming out of a pandemic,” she said. “There will be many lessons to be learned over the next year.”

Suzanne Perez reports on education for KMUW in Wichita and the Kansas News Service.