Blue Valley modifies high school mask rules — what that could mean for students starting Wednesday

The Blue Valley Board of Education voted Monday night to approve modifications to the district's masking rule originally passed in November. Under the modified rules, high schoolers will be required to mask up if either a school's percentage of COVID-19 positive cases exceeds a 3% or a building's student absences due to illness surpasses 7%. The change means all but one Blue Valley high school will have effectively have mask mandates starting Wednesday. File photo.

Many more Blue Valley students may soon be wearing masks with the district’s latest iteration of its COVID-19 mitigation policy.

At the school board’s first meeting of the new semester Monday night, the board voted 4-3 to approve modifications to the masking order the body approved in November.

Monday’s meeting was also the first with three newly elected board members, two of whom strenuously opposed masking rules during their campaigns last fall.

New mask policy

Starting Wednesday, Jan. 12, high schoolers will be required to mask up under one of two conditions:

  • if a school’s percentage of COVID-19 positive cases exceeds 3% (already in place previously)
  • if a school’s total student absences due to illness exceeds 7%

According to each school’s illness absentee numbers reported Monday, that would mean all of the district’s schools except for Blue Valley Northwest will have to mask starting Wednesday.

“At 5% absenteeism is when we typically do intensive cleaning and we start looking for common causes,” Mark Schmidt, the assistant superintendent for the Blue Valley School District said. “And at 10% is when we are reporting it to the health department, so I think 7% is kind of a hedge to go lower to stop that spread to 10%.”

Blue Valley chief human resources officer Eric Punswick said the change in policy comes at a time in which the district is  struggling to have enough faculty to handle daily operations.

“We were able to meet the needs barely as of last week,” Punswick said. “We had just under 50 positions that were open today.”

The new masking policy will only be enforced during school hours.

For extracurricular activities, Blue Valley says it will continue to refer to the Kansas State High School Activities Association’s guidelines.

Decisions and other motions

The policy change was proposed by new BV Northwest area board member Gina Knapp.

Knapp was joined by board members Amy Tysseling, Patrick Hurley and Jodie Dietz in approving the new policy.

Board member Tom Mitchell, along with new board members Kaety Bowers and Jim McMullen, voted against it.

All four members who supported the change said they were in agreement that the time to make the change was now as the district’s COVID-19 cases were on the rise.

At the same time, the Johnson County Department of Health and Environment recently pulled back its support in contact tracing.

“I am so concerned about our staffing issues right now, I’m hoping that this can help mitigate that some, because we want to finish the school year,” Dietz said.

During the meeting, three other motions were made by the board, all of which failed.

They included:

  • a motion by McMullen to make masking optional for all children who attend Blue Valley early education programs. It failed in a 5-2 vote with Bowers the only other board member supporting it.
  • another motion by McMullen to allow parents to file for mask exemptions on behalf of their children. That also failed on a 5-2 vote with Bowers and McMullen voting for it.
  • a motion by Knapp to require all schools to mask for the next four weeks. That motion failed 4-3, with Dietz and Hurley joining Knapp voting for it.

Changes to the records

The new masking policy comes at a time when the district is changing how they are reporting their COVID-19 cases among students and faculty.

Last week, JCDHE announced it was no longer feasible to help local districts with contact tracing due to the increased number of cases since the holidays.

Prior to this week, Blue Valley used positive case numbers it received from the health department to update its weekly COVID-19 dashboard every Friday.

“When we came back on Wednesday, it quickly became obvious with a number of cases that were out there, the weekly reporting was no longer going to work,” Schmidt said.

To mitigate this issue, the dashboard will be updated daily now but with the number of total absences caused by illness at each school, instead of the number of positive COVID-19 cases and quarantines.

Set to launch around noon Tuesday, the new dashboard will only be a day behind with its data.