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Wichita BOE Votes To Mandate Masks For Students, Employees

Deborah Shaar

After voting earlier this month to "strongly recommend" masks in schools, the board reversed course and voted to make masks mandatory.

The Wichita school board voted Monday night to require masks in schools, beginning next Monday.

The move came as the district reported nearly 200 COVID-19 cases in its schools. Officials said nearly 1,700 students and teachers are currently under quarantine for the virus.

Wichita, the state’s largest district with about 47,000 students, began the school year earlier this month without a mask mandate, voting to “strongly recommend” that students and employees wear masks.

Board president Stan Reeser said he visited several schools over the past two weeks, including somewhere only about half of students and employees were masked.

“My fear is that the number of people wearing masks will continue to decline” without a requirement, Reeser said.

Superintendent Alicia Thompson said nine of Wichita’s 90 schools are considered “high-demand testing locations,” and that has put added stress on school nurses. She did not name the schools but said she planned to send additional support to those locations.

The school board’s unanimous vote comes just two days after the Sedgwick County Commission voted down a request to impose a mask mandate for indoor spaces, outdoor spaces where social distancing isn’t possible and on public transit.

The request came from Dr. Garold Minns, the county’s health officer, who cited the surge in Covid-19 cases caused by the delta variant.

The three Republicans on the commission voted against the mandate while the two Democrats supported it.

Some commissioners said at Friday’s meeting that local school boards should decide whether to require masks in their districts.

County health officials have reported a rise in COVID-19 cases for the past several weeks. The number of patients hospitalized with COVID-19 has increased every week since July 6.

The roughly 200 intensive care unit beds at Wesley Healthcare and Via Christi hospitals are full for the second consecutive week.

Board member Ernestine Krehbiel voted against a mask mandate earlier this month. She said she voted for the requirement Monday “because we’re being proactive.”

“We’ve gotten some excellent, excellent advice from doctors,” Krehbiel said. “I changed my position and believe that it is right for this district to lead.”

Several board members expressed frustration over a new state law that limits remote learning in schools. The law limits each student to no more than 40 hours of remote learning unless they’re enrolled in Education Imagine Academy, the district’s full-time online program.

Joe Nold, a trauma surgeon and critical care specialist at Ascension Via Christi St. Francis Hospital, said he and other doctors are burned out from taking care of COVID-19 patients.

"We are done. We are burned out,” Nold said. “The nurses, the doctors, everyone from the top to the bottom is just overwhelmed with taking care of sick patients.

“Now seeing our kids exposed is just one more drop in the bucket that can be overwhelming.”

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.