A letter signed by 26 elected leaders in Johnson County urges the Board of County Commissioners to end the county’s current public health order requiring masks in schools serving younger students.
The letter, which bears the title “Locally Elected Working Together Advocating for Johnson County Children and Families,” was sent to commissioners last week.
Its signatories include several Republican state lawmakers, including Sen. Mike Thompson of Shawnee and Sen. Kellie Warren of Leawood, along with Johnson County Sheriff Calvin Hayden.
“It is time to lead together. We desire to lead with you,” the letter, addressed to commissioners, states. “It is time to end the mask mandate for all children. It is time to lead and do our part to heal the division in our community and this divisive rhetoric.”
Also signing the letter are several Johnson County school board members, including Kaety Bowers and Jim McMullen, who were both elected to the Blue Valley Board of Education in November running campaigns that emphasized their position that masks should be optional in schools.
The case the letter makes
The letter urges the board to discontinue the public health order on Jan. 1, 2022, in time for the start of the second semester and asks that the board add an agenda item in order to discuss the issue at its next meeting on Thursday, Dec. 16.
The order, which went into effect in August, requires universal masking with some exceptions in all schools in the county that serve students up to and including 6th graders. It is set to expire May 31, 2022.
The letter points out that children as young as 5 have been eligible to receive the COVID-19 vaccine since before Thanksgiving and that by Jan. 1, families who want to will have had the chance to get their children fully immunized.
It also quotes county data that shows severe “negative outcomes” from COVID-19 remain rare among children, including the fact that just 69 people in the 0-19 age range have been hospitalized due to the disease, and there have been no reported deaths from COVID-19 in anyone that young.
“While we see that positive cases are occurring and will continue, the outcomes we see from the positive cases, thankfully, do not affect our children greatly,” the letter says.
The letter also suggests ongoing masking rules have contributed to a variety of problems in schools, including an “increased number of mental health issues, behavioral issues, educational detriment including learning loss and decreased test scores across the county as reported to and available on [the Kansas Department of Education.]”
Masks also make it challenging for students to “effectively learn phonics and to learn to read appropriately with a mask covering their mouths and teacher’s faces.”
A Facebook event called “Bare Face Holiday Assembly at the BOCC Meeting,” which makes reference to the letter, is also urging participants to show up in person Thursday at the commission’s meeting room in Olathe to advocate for an ending of the school mask order.
Calls for an end to school mask rules comes as Johnson County and the greater Kansas City region are experiencing a fourth surge in COVID-19 case numbers heading into winter.
The Johnson County Department of Health and Environment’s online COVID-19 dashboard reported at the end of last week that the county’s incidence rate of new cases stood at 342 per 100,000 residents and its positivity at 11.4%, the highest those metrics have been since early January.
All four public school districts serving northern Johnson County have reported single-week highs in positive COVID-19 cases among students since returning from Thanksgiving break.
Blue Valley, Olathe and USD 232 have rolled back mask rules for high school students, though the Olathe Reporter reported Monday that at least two high schools in that district would reimpose mask rules from now until the holiday break.
For those districts and Shawnee Mission, total case numbers among students still hover at less than 1% of the entire student population of those districts.
But local health officials have continued to stress the strain that resurgent transmission of the virus is taking on hospitals and have continued to urge the public to wear masks in public and get vaccinated.
Last week, leaders of several metro health care systems, including AdventHealth Shawnee Mission and KU Health, said they were seeing an influx of patients with COVID-19, including those forced to go into ICU care and be put on ventilators.
“What we’re seeing is what we were afraid of,” said Steven Stites, chief medical officer at KU Health, last week. “What we’re seeing is the most rapid escalation since COVID started in the number of new cases coming in. These cases will blunt our ability to take care of you [patients] if you come in because you’ve had a stroke, a heart attack or broke your arm. We have to get a hold of it.”
Read the entire letter below: