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Wichita school board votes to drop mask mandate after spring break

Kansas education officials say several districts are considering closing schools because they don’t have enough staff or substitute teachers to operate.
Suzanne Perez
Starting March 11, face masks will no longer be required in Wichita schools, but they will be “encouraged and welcomed.”

The Wichita school board voted 4-3 to end the district’s mask requirement, citing dramatic drops in the number of COVID-19 cases and quarantines over recent weeks.

WICHITA, Kansas — When Wichita students return to school after spring break next month, they’ll no longer be required to wear face masks in school buildings.

The Wichita school board voted 4-3 Tuesday to end the district’s mask requirement at the end of business March 10 — the last day of classes before spring break. Members cited dramatic drops in the number of COVID-19 cases and quarantines over recent weeks.

“We’re moving absolutely and positively in the right direction,” said board member Sheril Logan, who made the motion.

Three newly elected school board members — Diane Albert, Kathy Bond and Hazel Stabler, who refused to wear face masks at their first scheduled meeting — pushed to lift the mandate immediately. That motion failed 4-3.

Logan described her proposal as a compromise that would give schools and families time to adjust to the change.

“We have our community polarized, some wanting masks desperately forever and some wanting masks to go away yesterday,” Logan said.

Starting March 11, face masks will no longer be required in Wichita schools, but they will be “encouraged and welcomed.” Masks still will be required on school buses because of a federal order that they be worn on all forms of public transportation.

Albert objected to the phrase “recommended” or “encouraged,” saying district policy should state simply that masks are optional.

“What about the people who don’t feel comfortable wearing a mask? They’re the ones that are usually ostracized and publicly shamed and humiliated. … It breeds a discontent and a disunity within our district,” Albert said.

“Masks have been used to bully others into submission and making decisions that are against their best interest.”

Dozens of people on both sides of the mask issue attended Tuesday’s special meeting, which was called at the request of the three new board members. Several audience members refused to wear masks in the meeting room.

Before voting in favor of lifting the mandate after spring break, board member Julie Hedrick said vaccines remain the community’s best defense against COVID-19.

“Use the spring break time when you’re not in school to get out and get vaccinated,” Hedrick said.

Her comments were interrupted by loud boos from the crowd. One woman shouted, “You’re not a doctor!”

Board president Stan Reeser paused the meeting several times to ask audience members to be quiet and courteous.

“You need to let the words of the speakers soak into the Board of Education,” Reeser said. “If we cannot control this, we will clear this room. We will have an orderly public meeting … and I ask for your cooperation.”

Among the speakers Tuesday were Justin and Heather Dunning, who said their son with autism has been negatively affected and stressed from having to wear a mask.

“You have violated our parental and constitutional rights. … Let our children breathe,” Heather Dunning said. She said she requested an exemption to the mask mandate because of her son’s diagnosis but was repeatedly denied.

“You have made us parents feel small and cost us so much time,” she said.

Mary Dean spoke in favor of the mask mandate and urged the board members who called Tuesday’s special meeting to resign.

“You could be really discussing important business instead of wasting people’s time to come here and talk about masks,” Dean said. “Leave your positions because it’s evident that you’re not wanting to do the business of the district. It’s time for you to go.”

The motion passed Tuesday includes a clause that the board will reconsider and possibly extend the mask mandate if COVID-19 cases spike again in schools or the community.

Last week, the number of positive COVID cases among Wichita students dropped to 34, down from a high of 1,308 on Jan. 6. The district recorded 18 positive cases among staff members last week, down from 351 in early January.

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.