Masking will be optional for K-12 students in Manhattan-Ogden Schools beginning next week after the school board voted 6-1 Wednesday to change modalities for its pandemic response plan.
It was a move that wasn’t totally unexpected, since district officials said two weeks ago they were targeting Feb. 21 as switching to mask-optional, based on metrics showing lower percent positive rates in the community.
“What we’re seeing is people have the opportunity to be vaccinated, people would still have the opportunity to wear masks if they want to at school, but our numbers have improved. Now would be the time to say optional masking in our schools, with some exceptions,” he said.
Exceptions to the change are at Early Learning and USD 383 transportation. Wade states since the early learning age group is not yet eligible for vaccinations, he doesn’t feel comfortable recommending that area yet. Board member Christine Weixelman stated she’d like Wade to ask the medical advisory committee about natural immunity, favoring masks be optional for the preschoolers too.
For transportation, the Kansas Department of Education has advised school districts to follow the federal order from the US Department of Health and Human Services.
“Then also when people are coming back from quarantine that you may be in a school of students who, by choice don’t wear a mask, but if you’re coming back from quarantine after five days, then you need to be wearing a mask, as per current guidelines,” he said.
Board member Jayme Morris-Hardeman was the lone vote against the measure, saying the decision was tough as she’s heard from over 100 individuals, including more than half who wanted to keep mandatory masking in place.
“As a scientist I’m always going to look at data when I make decisions and the data point that speaks most strongly to me is the two week average rate of positivity in the community. It continues to drop and that’s great, but in my mind, I don’t believe we should stop masking until that number is below 10 percent for two consecutive weeks,” she said.
Board President Curt Herrman voted in favor of the recommendation saying he wanted to stay consistent with his past decisions.
“All along I’ve always supported whatever the medical advisory team has advised us to do and so I will vote in favor of this,” he said.
Others on the board, who’ve long urged the district to end mask mandates were also supportive. Board members Brandy Santos and Darell Edie stated it was long overdue.
Board member Kristin Brighton says she had received an email from a concerned parent who has a medically fragile child.
“I would hope that even people who personally don’t believe in masking, if a parent says their child is medically fragile, would you please be willing to wear a mask if you’re working with them, I would hope we’d honor that request,” she said.
Dr. Wade is encouraging people to be respectful of those who choose to wear or not wear a mask. Board Member Karla Hagemeister, who sits on the medical advisory committee, says her decision to support came from the committee’s approval of the recommendation.
“It is not the email that comes to me from a staff member that says if you remove masks it means you don’t care about me or you don’t respect me. It is also not from parent or citizen comments tonight that tell me that this is about freedom and being a patriot, individual liberties because I think that those are good values, but they’re also competing values that have weight, in my mind,” she said.
Wade says a letter of information will be sent out this week to families and staff members on the details of the new plan. Elementary students are out of school through Monday, which is when the new protocols take effect.
Sam Hennigh and Brandon Peoples both contributed to this article