LOUISBURG — All Miami County school districts require masks to be worn by everyone in their school buildings.
But school district patrons — both for and against masks — continue to ask administrators when will the masks come off?
Louisburg USD 416’s school board meeting in September was attended by a group that did not support masks in schools. That was countered at the October school board meeting by a group that supports the masks.
The school board took a step to try and put the debate to rest at the October school board meeting by voting 7-0 to approve the USD 416 COVID-19 Policies and Procedures Document which requires the wearing of masks.
The policies and procedures have been in place since the start of the school year but had not been formally adopted, Superintendent Brian Biermann said. He said the board made some minor changes to the document, but masks remain in the policy.
“Before school started, every school district (in the state) did a reopening plan,” Biermann said in October. “We never formally approved that plan with the board, and so we have run through the first quarter and done remarkably well, even though we’ve had 26 positive cases affect our schools.”
After the October board meeting, Biermann talked about those 26 cases.
“We’ve had 10 staff members and 16 students (test positive), but we’ve been able to keep schools open — honestly because of us wearing masks,” Biermann said. “Now, I know masks have been a hot topic everywhere. I won’t argue whether masks scientifically work or not because I’m not a scientist.”
But Biermann said he knows masks are working for several reasons.
“I know masks are working because our students feel safe coming to school. I know they are working because our staff feels safe coming to school,” he said. “I know they are working because the parents that have decided to send their kids to school feel safe. The biggest reason I know masks are working is that we’ve had no quarantines with 26 cases.
“If we weren’t wearing masks, we would not be open,” Biermann said. “We would have to shut our doors because of the amount of students that would be required to quarantine.”
Biermann pointed to a “close-contact” modification in health guidelines for classroom settings as the reason why.
He and other Miami County superintendents supported the modification to the Miami County Health Department’s “close-contact” guidance that removes the 6 feet of separation rule as long as masks are being appropriately worn by everyone in the classroom.
The new guidance, which pertains exclusively to classrooms, went into effect Sept. 2.
The guidance for K-12 school classrooms states that because mask wearing has proven to be an effective way to prevent the spread of COVID-19, students and teachers wearing masks are considered low risk of contracting COVID-19 even if they were within six feet of an infectious individual.
Christena Beer, the county health department’s disease investigator, said at a County Commission study session in early September that the county health department’s close-contact modification is based on current data and science, as well as other expert analysis from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), Kansas Department of Health and Environment (KDHE), Johnson County Department of Health and Environment and Children’s Mercy Hospital.
The modification is supported by Dr. Donald Banks, the county’s health officer, who signed the document.
“Since March, Dr. Banks and the staff at the Miami County Health Department have felt comfortable knowing that masks do work,” Beer said. “We have evidence of that, real life evidence.”
The only Louisburg school district quarantines that have been required were associated with extra-curricular activities, but none in the classroom setting, Biermann said in October.
The calendar has flipped to November, and the school district still has not been required to shut down a school because of COVID-19.
District patrons on both sides of the mask mandate have expressed appreciation to Biermann that schools have remained open, he said.
“Regardless of where folks stand on the mask debate, everyone wanted to know if and when it was going to change and that just creates a lot of angst and kind of anxiety,” Biermann said in a follow-up interview after the October meeting. “So, by the board approving (the COVID-19 guidelines), which they did last night 7-0, the masks will stay on. That’s always been the plan, but I guess now it’s maybe more clear by being spelled out in black and white.”
The superintendent said he doesn’t believe the mask policy will change unless state, federal or local health officials issue guidance that masks are no longer necessary in schools. He doesn’t think that will happen, unless a vaccine or some other development causes the COVID-19 spread to stop.
“I’ve had two goals for the school year, and the first goal is to keep schools open,” Biermann said. “Our second goal is to fulfill our mission statement, which is to educate each child in a safe and nurturing environment.”
Biermann said COVID-19 has made achieving those two goals very difficult and put a major strain on the school system.
“Without masks, we would not be able to achieve those goals,” he said.