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‘I’m not sick’: Debate over mask mandates resurfaces at Wichita board of education meeting

BOE newcomers.jpeg
Hugo Phan
From left: Diane Albert, Kathy Bond and Hazel Stabler are new members of the Wichita School Board.

Monday's meeting ended before it began because three new board members and some audience members refused to wear face masks.

WICHITA, Kansas — The Wichita school board is once again at the center of a debate about mask mandates after three new board members refused to wear masks at their first board meeting.

Board president Stan Reeser ended Monday’s meeting before it began, citing a refusal by the new board members and some audience members to wear face coverings.

The district requires face masks for anyone 3 or older inside district buildings. The board meeting was in a lecture hall at Wichita North High School.

In interviews with Wichita’s KAKE News after Monday’s meeting, the new board members talked about their decision.

“I’m not sick. Does it look like I have a temperature or a fever or exhibiting any symptoms?” said board member Diane Albert. “So the question really needs to be: Why do healthy people need to wear a mask?”

Albert, Kathy Bond and Hazel Stabler were elected in November, unseating school board incumbents who voted in favor of the mask requirement.

Before Monday’s meeting, a widely shared Facebook post urged people to attend the school board meeting and “enter as a group without a mask” or to remove their masks once inside the lecture hall.

“The more people we have supporting our new Conservative Members the better,” the post said.

Bond told KAKE News those supporters persuaded her to not put on her face mask.

“I had it in my hand. And when I saw the people out in the audience freeze and they didn’t do anything, that gave me the courage,” Bond said. “Those are the people that voted (for) me and elected me into this position to stand for what they want me to stand for.”

Stabler said she “intended to” wear her face mask but decided otherwise.

“I was going to abide, but it kind of went fast,” she told KAKE News. “I was, like, looking around and … it is what it is.”

The Sedgwick County Republican Party, which campaigned on behalf of the new board members, supported their stance in an e-mail late Monday.

“Mama bears, K-12 parents and grandparents, and educators voted in school board candidates to listen. Simply put, they felt their voices were not heard. So they fired nearly all sitting school board members and elected replacements,” GOP leaders said in the e-mail.

The local GOP also questioned Reeser’s decision to suspend Monday’s meeting.

“While the legality of this move is highly questionable, its motive is clear: sitting board members did not want to seat new, duly elected and sworn-in board members. … Is this a coup?? We will find out.”

On Tuesday afternoon the district announced the meeting has been rescheduled to noon Jan. 18 at the Alvin E. Morris Administrative Center, 903 S. Edgemoor.

In a statement, Reeser said face masks would be required and "must remain on for the duration of the meeting."

Should a board member not want to comply, Reeser said, they can participate in the meeting remotely but would not be able to vote remotely. Board policy requires that members must be physically present to vote except during emergencies "such as a time when schools are closed by an Executive Order of the Governor of Kansas."

Reeser said he hopes the new board members will follow the district’s rules.

“I did give them the opportunity to do the right thing, and they chose not to,” he said.

“I truly welcome an open and honest debate about any kind of mask directive that was previously approved. But it’s like, if you want to change a seat-belt law. … You cannot tell the officer who pulls you over, ‘Well, I want this law changed.’ You have to respect the rules.”

Kansas health care officials issued a dire warning last week that COVID-19 has reached new and alarming levels throughout the region, and they urged everyone to wear masks in public.

The Wichita district is reporting record numbers of positive COVID cases among staff members. Late last week, about 400 employees were out of work because of COVID-related quarantines.

The Wichita school board is the only Wichita-area elected body with a mask requirement for meetings. Members of the Sedgwick County Commission, Wichita City Council and other local school boards aren’t required to wear masks.

The school board in Derby, just south of Wichita, voted 4-3 Monday to end its mask requirement for schools.

Suzanne Perez reports on education for KMUW in Wichita and the Kansas News Service. You can follow her on Twitter @SuzPerezICT.

The Kansas News Service is a collaboration of KCUR, Kansas Public Radio, KMUW and High Plains Public Radio focused on health, the social determinants of health and their connection to public policy.

Kansas News Service stories and photos may be republished by news media at no cost with proper attribution and a link to ksnewsservice.org.

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.