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Masks Optional As Wichita Public Schools Begin Classes This Week

Christopher Sessums
flickr Creative Commons

The Wichita Board of Education voted to "strongly recommend" students wear masks, but did not institute a mandate.

Wichita public school students will not be required to wear masks when they return to school this week.

School board members voted 4-3 Monday to “strongly recommend” mask-wearing for all students and employees and to require them for visitors, regardless of vaccination status.

Several local doctors and parents urged a universal mask mandate in schools, fearing new COVID-19 outbreaks fueled by the highly transmissible delta variant.

“Personally, I’ve treated more . . . kids with COVID-19 last week than at any week during this pandemic so far,” said Paul Teran, a Wichita pediatrician.

“My children will continue to wear masks this year. But we need a collective effort that includes high vaccination rates, universal masking and other control measures to protect our kids and allow us to move forward.”

Wichita is the state’s largest school district, with nearly 47,000 students and more than 4,000 teachers.

The district required masks for everyone on district property during the 2020-21 school year and into summer school. In early July, district administration ditched the mandate and made masks optional.

Superintendent Alicia Thompson told school board members Monday that the district’s pandemic advisory team opted to recommend rather than require masks because they wanted to allow teachers flexibility.

She said there are educational concerns with masks in younger grades, where children are learning to sound out letters and words and need to see teachers’ faces.

“The gravest concern academically is our little people because they learn how to read by watching and looking at pronunciation,” Thompson said.

Board member Ben Blankley pushed for a mask mandate Monday. That action was tabled after the 4-3 vote to approve Thompson’s plan.

In addition to Blankley, board members Julie Hedrick and Ron Rosales opposed the plan to strongly recommend masks. Voting in favor were board president Stan Reeser, Sheril Logan, Mia Turner and Ernestine Krehbiel.

Thompson said 52% of teachers had received a COVID-19 vaccine through district vaccination clinics, but she didn’t know how many more have gotten the shot elsewhere.

Only children 12 and older qualify for Pfizer’s COVID-19 vaccine. According to the latest dathttps://covid.cdc.gov/covid-data-tracker/#vaccination-demographica from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, fewer than a third of the roughly 25 million 12- to 17-year-olds in the United States are on track to be fully vaccinated before school starts.

“Someone used the word ‘plague’ and this really is, it’s like a plague,” said Krehbiel prior to her vote for the district’s plan.

“I sure would like to be able to make it so that (masks) are mandatory for the 12-and-under . . . because I’m just so worried about that young bunch.”

Classes for most Wichita students begin Thursday. Orientation for sixth-, ninth- and tenth-graders is Wednesday.

Board members and district officials said they will monitor COVID-19 data, including positive cases and infection rates, and adjust their plan if needed.

Suzanne Perez is a longtime journalist covering education and general news for KMUW and the Kansas News Service. Suzanne reviews new books for KMUW and is the co-host with Beth Golay of the Books & Whatnot podcast. Follow her on Twitter @SuzPerezICT.