OSAWATOMIE — Students and staff members in Osawatomie USD 367 will be required to wear masks beginning Tuesday, Sept. 7, until the next school board meeting Monday, Sept. 13.
The action was taken during a special school board meeting on the morning of Friday, Sept. 3. The two-hour meeting included comments from the public and a lengthy debate among the school board members.
The districtwide mask mandate, which will include all district buildings and buses, was recommended by Superintendent Justin Burchett and approved by a vote of 5-2.
School board members Josh Barnett and Kristal Powell voted against the motion.
Powell suggested giving students the option to be tested each morning if they wanted to attend school without a mask. Burchett said he doesn’t currently have enough staff available to test that amount of students, as it already takes about one hour and 15 minutes to test 12 student-athletes at the middle school.
Barnett consistently spoke throughout the meeting against the requirement of masks. He said his child has asthma and has experienced difficulty when wearing a mask in the past, but they have not been able to get a signed exemption from a medical professional.
The district has not required masks to be worn by students or staff members since the start of the school year, but if a person is put into a 10-day quarantine for being a close contact to a positive COVID-19 case, they have been given the option to wear a mask and return to school or stay home throughout the quarantine.
Barnett initially made a motion to keep that existing policy in place until the next school board meeting and not initiate a mask mandate, but it failed for lack of a second. Later in the meeting, after the mask mandate was approved, Barnett made another motion to add an option for parents to sign a form exempting their child from having to wear a mask. That motion failed by a vote of 4-3, with Barnett, Powell and Ben Wendt voting “yes” and D.J. Needham, Marsha Adams, Gordon Schrader and Dr. Jeff Dorsett voting “no.”
The approved mask mandate allows for exemptions via a medical or mental health professional, and it also exempts eating and drinking and physical activity, such as P.E. or athletics.
Burchett recommended the districtwide mask mandate after reviewing statistics with the board members at the beginning of the meeting.
Burchett said the district currently has four active cases with staff members and 10 active cases with students, which has resulted in 171 quarantines, or 15 percent of the district.
In a majority of those quarantine situations, Burchett said the individual has returned to school with a mask.
Burchett said the numbers don’t include a staff member at Swenson who tested positive the previous night and another new case at the middle school.
“We’re averaging two to three positive cases a day,” Burchett said.
Unlike last year, when most of the cases were adults, Burchett said this year there has been one more student case than there has been cases with staff members.
“It’s not just an adult issue anymore,” he said.
Burchett also compared the recent absence rate with the same time period last school year. The rate has doubled from 5.3 percent to 10.5 percent.
The biggest issue, he said, has been on staffing due to quarantines. He said district administrators are tied up with contacting parents and testing some students every morning at the middle and high schools for athletics. He also said he does not have many substitute teachers available, and a lack of bus drivers is creating a real transportation issue.
“I’ll tell you right now, I don’t think we can continue on the pace we’re going,” Burchett said.
With the mask mandate in place, Burchett said a student or staff member would not be required to quarantine even if they were in close contact with a positive individual, as long as both people were wearing masks.
Before concluding the meeting, the school board members also voted 6-1 to allow district administrative staff to perform initial contact tracing and notify parents. Burchett said the issue is that the Miami County Health Department is backlogged with cases, and there have been situations where the district may be aware of a positive case in a classroom, and that case has been reported to the health department, but it may be multiple days before the health department contacts individuals determined to be in close contact. Burchett said district officials have already acted in those situations to alert close contacts, which is why he wanted the board to make the policy official.
Barnett voted against the motion and questioned the validity of the quarantines.
“You’re basically asking us to become the health department,” Barnett said. “It’s not legal, and I hope somebody challenges it.”
Several parents spoke on both sides of the issue during the public comment portion of the meeting.
One father said he won’t send his daughter to school in a mask. He said he has had a collapsed lung twice and got COVID-19 during the July 4 week, and it was a mild case. He acknowledged that his neighbor, who was elderly and had underlying health conditions, died from the disease. He doesn’t understand, though, why a healthy child with a healthy immune system should have to wear a mask all day.
“Please don’t make it where they have to wear masks,” he said.
A mother asked the board members to look at the statistics as a whole and not just individual cases.
“The information has shown that masks are effective in preventing the spread of COVID,” she said. “I want the schools to stay open.”
Another mother with four children in the school district said masks are ineffective against the virus, and she asked the school board members to not implement a mask mandate.
“I am prepared to pull them out today,” she said of her children.
Another member of the public said masks are all about cutting down the risk, and they are one more tool the district can do to keep schools in session and the students safe.
“I think doing everything you can is good,” he said.
Members of the public will be able to speak at the next school board meeting scheduled for Monday, Sept. 13. Board members will consider whether to extend the mask mandate at that time.