OVERLAND PARK, Kan. — After more than three hours of discussion, the Shawnee Mission Board of Education voted to allow optional masking for secondary students when they return to school on Wednesday.
This as Johnson County grapples with a surge of COVID-19 cases that are literally off the charts.
At the meeting on Monday, the board heard from Dr. Elizabeth Holzschuh, director of epidemiology at the Johnson County Department of Health and Environment.
They also heard from Dr. Jennifer Mellick, a local pediatrician who serves on the board of the Kansas Chapter of the American Academy of Pediatrics.
They both expressed concern about the levels of COVID-19 in Johnson County.
"We're definitely bracing along with our healthcare partners for what is coming," Holzschuh said. "Public health will be overrun, we cannot maintain, we cannot do case investigations on 2,000 cases or 1,000 cases a day, we do not have the capacity."
On Monday, the county recorded a 21.5% positivity rate which was up from 12.5% on Dec. 30.
In addition, cases on Monday stood at 637 per 100,000 people, which is the highest in the county since the beginning of the pandemic.
On Nov. 15, the board previously voted to make masks optional for secondary students.
Board members debated whether to delay the optional masking for secondary students, but ultimately decided to let the policy go into effect.
It's a mitigation plan for the second semester of the school year that parents were looking forward to.
"They [the students] have made sacrifices for the community, even though they are least at risk to wear these masks and protect each other," Sarah Crafton, a parent whose children attend SMSD said. "But the time has come when I think we are in a situation where it looks like Covid is moving from a pandemic to endemic."
But the omicron variant has changed things.
"Given how quickly it spreads and the difficulty in identifying contacts when you already have that many positive individuals in your building, that it could get out of hand very quickly and you may skyrocket above that 3%," Holzschuh said.
Talks of layering up masks didn't sit well with those in the audience, which led to a second outburst during the meeting.
Once the room cleared out, the board continued its conversation over its mitigation plan.
At one point, the board considered whether to hold off on making masks optional at secondary schools for at least another two weeks, so they can get another look at the data.
But eventually they approved the plan as is.
The plan also includes testing students daily who show Covid symptoms or who have exposed to a positive case.
Masks are still mandatory for kindergarten through sixth grade students after a vote by the Johnson County Commissioners in August.
On Thursday, the Johnson County Commissioners will meet to decide whether to remove masks for all students.
COVID-19 mitigation may come up again when the school board has a regularly scheduled meeting on Jan 10.