Lynne Hermansen
Special to The Gardner News
The Gardner-Edgerton School District will not require elementary students to wear masks at school after the board of education approved a COVID-19 mitigation plan for the coming school year.
During the discussion, at least one audience member began shouting and left the meeting.
The motion failed three to four July 26 after a 30 minute discussion at the board meeting.
Kristin Schultz, board member, said she wanted a mask mandate for Kindergarten through 6th grade because vaccines still aren’t available to children under 12.
Stacie Kelly, a parent of four kids and local nurse, said she wanted everyone to wear masks when she spoke during public comments.
“It’s very concerning. I know my kids will be masked regardless,” she said. “With what I’ve seen recently, working in multiple hospitals is more sick kids, and I’m concerned without a mask mandate that number is just going to go up and in an end result our kids are going to miss a lot of school because of quarantine protocols.”
Kelly said she felt her experience as a nurse working with COVID patients across the country was invaluable.
Kelly said masks were the saving grace last school year to help kids go to school, and she supports and encourages a mask mandate.
“The medical community is shouting at the top of their lungs,” she said.
Kelly said they expect to see multiple kids a day with the Delta variant, and districts will be unable to maintain open schools without a mandate.
District staff said they will work closely with the Johnson County Department of Health and Environment with COVID-19 outbreaks.
Ryan Colston, Youth and Community programs supervisor, said if a student is unmasked and tests positive all students within a six foot radius would quarantine.
Colston said they had a good summer for kids in the community so far with summer programs.
Any fully vaccinated individual 12 years and older won’t have to quarantine when exposed, he said.
Colston discussed additional measures the district is taking to keep students and staff as safe as possible:
* Cleaning and maintenance procedures will continue to follow enhanced sanitization protocols.
* Parents and employees will continue to be required to report confirmed positive cases of COVID-19 to the building administration or their supervisor.
* Staff and students with a confirmed case of COVID-19 must quarantine according to the most recent JCDHE guidance.
* Parents and employees will continue to be notified if they or their children have been exposed (low, moderate or high-risk exposure).
Christi Whitter, elementary education director, said they would no longer be doing temperature checks, and students would report directly to their classrooms and attend grade level recesses.
Whittier said lunch would be a continual rotation to avoid large groups with spacing and assigned seats and not allow self service.
Meals will be pre-portioned, she said.
Schultz said she expects if students go unmasked for the numbers of more quarantine incidents to go up at the elementary level.
Colston  said if one kid tests positive then eight kids are guaranteed to be quarantined.
Schultz said she wanted to know how they would handle a teacher testing positive.
Jody Marshall, Human Resources director, said students and staff are not offered extra time off if they test positive for COVID-19 and will have to use their regular sick leave.
“There are no additional options,” he said.
A board member asked how they would know if an individual was fully vaccinated who had come down sick or been exposed.
Colston said they could ask for the individual to show their vaccination card and if they refused to  treat it as a quarantine.
Students 12 and older don’t have to quarantine if they have been vaccinated, but the exception is if they test positive, he said.
Tresa Boden, board member, said she wanted to know what the testing requirements were.
“Do we require parents get a test if Billy has a runny nose or cough,” she said.
Colston said they have to exhibit two or more symptoms.
“I don’t jump straight to Covid,” he said. “It could be strep, a cold or flu.”
Boden said she wanted to know about vaccination clinics at school.
Pam Stranahan, superintendent, said as of today no one was doing testing at schools, and they didn’t see a need with free clinics in the county.
Robin Stout, board member, said she wanted to know what happens when an entire school gets COVID.
Carlisle said there was the potential an entire school gets shut down.
Stranahan said the potential to close a as hook or classroom down exists.
“But we are in a different position than last year with staff members vaccinated,” she said. “We will keep schools open as long as we can, but the county can override.”
Stranahan said something too big of a cry for help would have to happen first before a school is shut down.
Schultz said she wanted to know how upper level education would be handled if a biology class for example became a hotspot.
Stranahan said students could be online at home, and they would be more robust through the Schoology program.
Marshall said they had also hired 50 substitute teachers for the school year so far and would like to see 70 subs.
Brandon Parks, board member, said he was concerned if Kindergarten through 6th graders weren’t vaccinated that they run the risk of an entire school be shut down.
Carlisle said last year the county had a mandate, and this year they don’t.
Schultz said she didn’t appreciate the responsibility being pushed on to them.
“It’s a disservice shrug,” she said.
Carlisle said the county is the health officials and they aren’t, but at least this school year has options with vaccines.
Schultz said she wanted to reiterate that elementary students do not have options.
Boden said she wanted to know why they weren’t talking about hospitals being full with kids who had RSV.
“We don’t mask for everything,” she said. “Parents make the choice for what is best.”
Schultz said every health official that deals with other viruses recommends masking.
“It is the number one way to mitigate,” she said.
Parks said middle and high school students can choose to vaccinate but elementary students can not.
Schultz said she felt they were taking away every safety precaution.
“Masks are still one thing to protect students and staff,” she said.
Boden said she remembered when H1N1 was an epidemic.
“It was the number one kid killer ,and we didn’t put kids in masks then,” she said.
Parks said if people vaccinate masks become meaningless.
“But elementary students don’t have that opportunity” he said.
Schultz said they were kicking the can and the health department recommends wearing masks if not vaccinated.
Schultz said she would rather start the school year at the safest level and then reverse and loosen measures.
Stranahan said they would continue to watch the numbers and follow the county’s decisions and guidelines.
New case numbers driven by the more contagious Delta variant continue to rise in Johnson County at the same time that vaccination rates have levelled off.
The Johnson County Department of Health and Environment has recommended schools require all unvaccinated persons wear masks inside their buildings this Fall. Many major public school districts in Johnson County except the Shawnee Mission School District have said they plan to make masks optional for the Fall.
Johnson County’s current percent positivity rate stands at its highest level since January at 7.8 percent according to the Johnson County Department of Health. It is higher than early September of last year when the 2020-21 school year began. Gardner-Edgerton students began last school year learning remote.
So far Johnson County Health officials have said they are not considering a county mask mandate yet.
Johnson County health officials have advised districts to require masks for unvaccinated individuals with cases surging and area hospitals reaching capacity. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention have recommended the same. The America. academy of Pediatrics has suggested universal masking in schools for all students and staff unvaccinated and vaccinated.
On Monday Children’s Mercy reported its hospital had reached capacity because of COVID-19 and other childhood diseases.
Children under the age of 12 are not eligible for the vaccine.
The motion to require masks failed 3 to 4. Boden, Shippy, Sutton and Carlisle voted for no masks. Parks, Stout and Schultz were pro mask.

In other business:
Rob Shippy was elected board president and Brandon Parks vice president. Both are up for election this November.
The board adjourned into closed session and upon returning voted to proceed as presented.