On Thursday, the Johnson County Commission is expected to discuss its current public health order that requires masks be worn in buildings in which Kindergarten through sixth grade education occurs.
The mandate was established just before the school year began with a vote of 5-2, and as it stands, won’t expire until after the end of the school year unless revised. Discussion on Thursday doesn’t necessarily mean the board will decide to end the order sooner, multiple commissioners stressed in December when they agreed to add an agenda item to the first meeting of the new year about the order.
The decision to pencil in an agenda item at the next Johnson County Commission meeting passed 5-2 Thursday. A motion to end the order in December failed with just District 3 commissioner Charlotte O’Hara and District 5 commissioner Michael Ashcraft voting in favor. They were also the pair who opposed the mask mandate when it first passed in August.
The debate about masking and public health orders — which has run hot throughout the pandemic so far — has continued on the local level with rising, current and past elected leaders pleading with the county government to see it their way in recent letters. One, sent in December, called for the end of the mandate altogether. Another, sent earlier this week, asked the county commission to not only keep the K-6 mandate in place, but make it universal for all K-12 schools.
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Healthcare leaders have also weighed in, advocating for masks in schools no matter what decisions local governments make about requirements. Dr. Steve Stites, the University of Kansas Health System’s chief medical officer, said there’s only one way to keep things open and kids in schools — masking.
“You want to keep schools open, how are you going to do that if everybody's sick? If all your staff are out, all your kids are sick? How are you going to do that? How are you going to keep businesses open,” he said on Tuesday. “If we don't take the rules of infection control seriously, this curve will bend us.”
Before breaking for the holidays, commission chair Ed Eilert reiterated the thresholds that commissioners had established for when the order might be reconsidered. One of the priorities was vaccine authorization for the whole school age population, which has happened. Another consideration was time to get the vaccine distributed to children.
The final variable — lowered levels of community transmission — isn’t currently being met. COVID-19 spread in the community is on the rise. The incidence rate, which measures the number of cases per 100,000 residents, is now pushing 900, the highest rates recorded locally at any point in the pandemic so far. There’s also regional concern about the risk of the omicron variant, which is more transmissible than previous strains.