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Johnson County parents challenge school district mask mandates under new law

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Posted at 11:29 AM, Apr 02, 2021
and last updated 2021-04-02 19:23:56-04

KANSAS CITY, Mo. — Parents in several Johnson County school districts are challenging school mask mandates under a new Kansas law.

The Blue Valley School District sent a letter to families Thursday, indicating that one parent had challenged its current mask mandate policy.

The Blue Valley School District Board of Education is now legally required to reconsider its mask mandate after the passage of Kansas Senate Bill 40 last month. The board will conduct a hearing on Tuesday to reconsider its mask mandate policy.

The bill, which was passed by lawmakers and signed by Gov. Laura Kelly, took effect late in March.

It requires school districts to schedule a public hearing every time a parent, employee, or student raises an issue with COVID-19 protocols. The district has to schedule the meeting within three days of receiving the request.

If the board declines to eliminate or adjust its policies to the satisfaction of a complaining parent or other constituent, the law allows parents to file a civil lawsuit against the district and challenge the COVID-19 policies in court.

The judge must hold the hearing within three days and issue a decision within seven days after the hearing.

If a judge rules against the district, it maybe required to change its COVID-19 mitigation efforts, including the elimination of a mask mandate.

Should a district side with the person who filed the complaint, it has to show that its actions or policies are the least restrictive way to keep everyone safe from the virus.

The Kansas Association of School Boards (KASB) says the law is problematic.

"If you are requiring masks, that's challengeable. If you decide not to require masks, that's challengeable," Mark Tallman, associate executive director of the Kansas Association of School Boards, said. "I don't think there's any doubt that boards made a lot of decisions and no matter what decision they made, a lot of people were unhappy with it. That's been the case all along. Now those decisions may have to be revisited again."

The law says that hearing requests can be submitted within 30 days of the action the person is challenging.

Tallman said districts are still trying to interpret that part of the law.

On March 29, the De Soto School District received five requests from parents for its board of education to have a hearing, which was scheduled for March 31. Three of the complaining parents withdrew their request before the meeting, while the other two didn't show for the hearing.

The district said the hearing officers "called the hearing to order, read an opening statement and then adjourned the hearing."

READ: De Soto School District parent complaint.

Olathe said it has received one request for a hearing.

While the KASB says the bill will cost school districts substantial time and resources, some parents are all for it.

"It gives parents a right to kind of continue to fight back for their children if they don't believe the school board is representing them well on choices they make for schools," Stephanie James, whose two kids are in high school in the Blue Valley School District, said.

James said it's a way to hold districts accountable.

"If it's going to clog up the system then oh well. Our voices need to be heard somehow and so I'm okay with that," James said.

Tallman said this law could have unforeseen negative impacts on districts.

Districts are already used to holding hearings for various grievances and even going to court. However, Tallman said this is different.

"What is unique is how specific the process is, how short the timelines are and that the burden of proof is really on the board to grant relief of whatever the challenger wants, even if it's two contradictory cases," Tallman said.

Johnson County, KS
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