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Masks are optional for Olathe high schools starting Monday — here's how it works

If COVID-19 spread started to increase, mitigation rules would become more strict on a building-by-building basis using set thresholds.

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Starting Monday, Olathe school district’s high school students, faculty and staff will no longer be required to wear masks, but the policy change comes as COVID-19 cases recorded in USD 233 and the community have begun to rise again. 

THE OLATHE HIGH SCHOOL TEST TO STAY POLICY

Part of the shift to optional masking in high school buildings hinges on what's called a "test-to-stay" policy. Under this model, unvaccinated and asymptomatic students and staff exposed would be allowed to stay in school provided they wear a mask during the incubation period and are tested daily. Unvaccinated students who do not wish to take the tests daily or those who test positive would be required to stay home. 

Test-to-stay protocols took effect on Monday, Nov. 8, but Anjanette Tolman, the district’s executive director of special services, said during November’s Olathe Board of Education meeting the district wanted two weeks to get that program running smoothly before it dropped the universal mask requirement. 

Currently, the school district has a partnership with Lenexa-based MAWD Pathology Group. The results from those tests are usually back that same day, especially if they’re taken in the morning. The testing center is run out of the Lindenwood Business Center Monday through Thursday from 8 a.m. to 6:30 p.m. and 10 a.m. to 2 p.m. on Sundays while school is in session. Minors need a parent present while they’re taking a test. However, Tolman said tests under the model could be administered anywhere for students and staff members provided they could provide proof of a PCR Test. 

This shift to the test-to-stay model and optional masking for ninth grade and up requires school nurses to do more contact tracing in the classroom, but Tolman said exposures between students would most likely be in the lunchroom, which is already the case.  

WHO STILL HAS TO MASK? 

If community spread started to increase, Tolman said that mitigation would become more strict on a building-by-building basis. If the number of isolations and quarantines surpassed 4%, a building would return to universal masking until the rate fell below 4% for two weeks. Additionally, that same protocol would be activated if 7% of a building’s population is absent. 

Middle and elementary school buildings in the Olathe school district, under the Johnson County K-6 mask mandate in effect through the end of the school year, must still enforce their facial covering requirements. Also, any older student or district staff member will be required to mask in settings that they interact with children still subject to the mask order. 

All students riding the bus or other school transportation regardless of age or vaccination status would be required to wear their masks still. Students who leave campus for sporting events or extracurricular activities will be expected to follow the COVID-19 mitigation protocols of the host school. 

Olathe isn’t the only district to drop its mask mandate for upper-grade students. In October, the De Soto school district removed its mask mandate for high school students. Additionally, since the USD 233 Board of Education decision in early November, Blue Valley and Shawnee Mission school districts have also rolled out plans to phase out masking for older students. 

OLATHE SCHOOL DISTRICT COVID TRANSMISSION

Recently, COVID-19 cases recorded in the school district have fluctuated, increasing some weeks and declining others. As of the week of Nov. 12, the most recent data available on the USD 233 dashboard, 79 students and 22 staff members had tested positive, both significant increases from the week before. Staff quarantines also more than doubled. Student quarantines, though high, decreased from the week of Nov. 5 to Nov. 12 by three. 

For the period between Oct. 22 and Nov. 4, the most COVID-19 cases in one school were reported in Regency Place Elementary, which saw 13 cases in students. The second most was seen at Olathe East High, with 12 cases. 

LOCAL COVID TRANSMISSION 

In the community at large, COVID-19 spread is increasing. As of Friday, the risk of transmission was considered to be high, according to data from the Johnson County Department of Health and Environment. That’s because the local incidence rate, which measures the number of cases per 100,000 residents in a seven-day timeframe, is above 220. The percent positivity, which counts the rate of positive results in the full field of testing, has also increased to 7.3%. 

During last Wednesday’s Facebook Live morning medical briefing, Dr. Steve Stites, the chief medical officer at the University of Kansas Health System, said there have been some recent “concerning trends.” 

“[It’s] time to be a little bit nervous around those things,” he said about the rise in new cases. 

Stites said when “people back off” from masking and the level of caution in the community declines, individuals become more vulnerable to getting COVID-19, even if they’re vaccinated. 

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