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Sedgwick County: Schools Can Opt Out Of Mask Mandate, Set Own Health Guidelines

Stephan Bisaha
Kansas News Service/File photo
A sign outside of Park Elementary School in Wichita urges people to wear masks.

The Sedgwick County Commission voted Tuesday to let public and private K-12 schools opt out of the county’s latest health order.

The new order from Dr. Garold Minns, the county’s health officer, goes into effect Sunday. It removes gathering and capacity limits for businesses, but retains requirements for face masks and social distancing.

But Commissioner David Dennis made a motion to let local school boards and the leaders of private schools decide whether to have students and employees wear face masks. He was joined by Pete Meitzner and Jim Howell in the 3-2 vote to allow the exemption.

“I want to trust these elected officials to make good policy for their own schools,” Howell said. “They understand locally better than we do.

“And the decision in Wichita may be different than the position in Renwick, and I think that’s OK. The uniformity of this policy doesn’t make this better.”

Commissioners Lacey Cruse and Sarah Lopez voted against the exemption. Lopez said if some school districts opt out of the mask mandate, it will put pressure on other districts to follow.

Although the exemption will recommend that districts follow the mask mandate, it will not be a requirement. Cruse said a similar recommendation by the county in July 2020 failed.

“When we made masks recommended last summer, we saw a spike in cases,” Cruse said. “So we do have history of when we make things recommended how things change in this community.”

In an email to district employees Tuesday afternoon, the Wichita school district said it would continue to require masks.

“Nothing changes in terms of requirements for students, staff or visitors to our buildings – all will continue to wear masks unless there is a medical exemption, as has been the case all year,” said the email from Wendy Johnson, the district’s director of Strategic Communications.

“As we conclude the year, prepare for graduation celebrations, summer school and next school year, safety will remain at the forefront of our planning.”

Before the motion and vote to exempt schools from the health order, Minns told commissioners that the county has made progress against the coronavirus. But he said there was still work to do, likening it to the final few miles of a 26-mile marathon.

“If you want to win the marathon, you don’t stop running at mile 20,” Minns said. “I would say we’re at about mile 21, maybe 22. Maybe I’m being a little optimistic, but I think we’re close to the finish line.

“So we don’t want to stop running now, and I don’t think we want to just open up everything as some other states have done.”

Howell said he would like to end the health orders now, but didn’t think there was support for that on the commission. Instead, he made a motion that the latest health order expire on April 9, instead of April 30 as planned.

“There’s a point in the future where we have to move away from health orders and back to individual responsibility and personal freedoms,” Howell said.

The motion failed 3-2 with Meitzner joining Lopez and Cruse in voting against it.

Next vaccination phase

Sedgwick County officials said they will begin taking appointments later this week for Phases 3 and 4 of the state’s vaccination plan.

Gov. Laura Kelly said Monday that the state would move into the next phases beginning Monday. That means residents between the ages of 16 and 64 with a pre-existing medical condition and non-health care workers could get vaccinated.

Assistant County Manager Tim Kaufman said the county gave out 19,401 vaccinations last week and has 16,000 appointments scheduled so far this week.

He said the county also is distributing the vaccine through community partners, such as the Black Nurses Association. It is holding vaccination clinics at Black churches in Wichita.

He said people in Phase 1 and 2 who have not been vaccinated should schedule an appointment this week before Phase 3 and 4 appointments begin next week.

With the help of the Kansas National Guard, the county set up a second vaccination clinic at the county extension office in west Wichita. It also is operating a clinic at the former main library branch in downtown Wichita.

Kaufman said the drive-through clinic in downtown Wichita will remain open. At some point, he said, the county will reduce personnel there and assign them to mobile units, which can deliver vaccinations in remote parts of the county.

Tom joined KMUW in 2017 after spending 37 years with The Wichita Eagle where he held a variety of reporting and editing roles. He also is host of The Range, KMUW’s weekly show about where we live and the people who live here. Tom is a board member of the Public Media Journalists Association, serving as small station representative, a volunteer coach for League 42 and an adjunct instructor in the Elliott School of Communication at Wichita State University.