Lynne Hermansen
Special to The Gardner News
County Commissioners voted on January 13 to have their meetings virtual going forward through February 17.
Commissioners Charlotte O’Hara and Michael Ashcraft dissented.
Penny Postoak Ferguson, county manager, said the Covid Omnicron variant had a major impact the past several weeks on county employees. About 310 employees were quarantined in isolation.
“We are trying to slow it down and encourage staff to work remote,” she said. “600,000 plus residents rely on us.”
Ed Eilert, commissioner chair, said the county had some future plans that would require them meeting in person. “We have one very large item from planning commission that requires a public meeting,” he said. “There are activities with DeSoto and the Sunflower plant with a lot of public interest.”
O’Hara said the Sunflower Plant issue was important, and they had been working on it since 2004.
“It’s an extremely critical issue and well vetted by the community,” she said. “We need to allow the public access to this important issue.”
Eilert said none of them knew what the future holds with Covid.
O’Hara said she was fine with virtual for their meeting but couldn’t continue to meet virtual going forward. “The public must have the ability to interface,” she said.
Ashcraft said he suggested hybrid meetings.
“Does it have to be virtual,” he said. “People can call in, staff, public, but we can still be in the chamber and some people can too.”
Becky Fast, commissioner, said she wanted a definition of hybrid.
Ashcraft said hybrid would allow commissioners and staff as necessary to remote in and the public who wish to speak.
“There is no set expectations, and we would take action as appropriate,” he said. Eilert said social distancing was limited in the chamber.
“The planning commission item can be delayed, but DeSoto has a timeline,” he said.
Shirley Allenbrand, commissioner, said they were stuck in this position because of people not having respect for others because they weren’t wearing masks.
“Use your judgment by wearing a mask,” she said.
Janee Hanzlick, commissioner, said they preferred meeting live and didn’t want to meet virtual.
“With hospitals and schools it’s the responsible thing to do the next few weeks,” she said.
O’Hara made a motion for Ashcraft’s suggested hybrid meeting. Ashcraft seconded the motion. The motion failed.
“I think it is a good way to go forward,” O’Hara said. “We are deja vu at the same point as a year ago, and we need to learn to live with it—it’s endemic.”
Hanzlick said hybrid meetings defeated the purpose of going virtual.
Jeff Meyers, commissioner, said he would suggest an amendment for hybrid public speakers.
“Covid has thrown many unusual circumstances,” he said. “It’s reasonable having meetings virtual especially with hospitals—they are outcrying that they need help.”
Allenbrand said the majority of the county’s schools mask, hospitals are begging for help and they were facing the same past hurdles.
Fast said it takes a village to put on county meetings, and she thought virtual was best.
Ferguson said she recommended virtual as long as the virus continued to spread.
“We are concerned about the county’s ability to provide services,” she said. “The virus is so contagious, and we don’t want the work force out all at once.”
Charles Hunt, state epidemiologist, stood in for Dr. Samni Areola and told commissioners there were currently 1,882 incidents in the county with an average of 1,620 cases per day for the last seven days.
Hunt said PCR tests had gone up 30.5 percent.
“Over 35,000 residents have been tested,” he said. “It’s increasing rapidly and vaccine rates are still low.”
Hunt said testing capacity was a concern, and they were working on a third site at Shawnee Mission Park while expanding hours at Johnson County Community College and Church of the Resurrection in Leawood.
Allenbrand said she wanted an update on the county’s high school numbers.
“I don’t know what else we can do besides vaccines and masks,” she said.
Hunt said five of the county’s districts had surpassed their absentee thresholds requiring all students to wear masks for at least two weeks.
Blue Valley and DeSoto were past three percent and five of the six high schools in Olathe were past four percent,” he said.
Hunt said Gardner-Edgerton High School hasn’t met their threshold as of Wednesday, January 12, all buildings in the Shawnee Mission School District required masks and Spring Hill wasn’t requiring masks.
“We encourage vaccines and masks,” he said. “Stay home when you’re sick because transmission is high.”
Allenbrand said she had found similar information and wanted to know where parents can find the information on their individual high school.
Hunt said the Covid dashboards are by district and not broken down by individual schools.
Hanzlick said she wanted to know how long high schools required masks once they reached the threshold.
“Last week we failed to provide mask mandates at the high school,” she said. “At what point do we revisit or foresee to continue because of the thresholds.”
Hunt said masks were required for 14 calendar days after reaching the threshold.
“As long as the absentee numbers stay above then they will continue to have to mask,” he said.
Hanzlick said it was something to continue to watch and take future action on if they needed to as a county.
O’Hara said she thought schools were proving they could handle it.
“The county doesn’t need to interfere,” she said.
On January 15 the Olathe School District announced they were closing schools district-wide for January 18 and  January 19.
Brent Yeager, superintendent, said the district had reached dire circumstances with too many teachers and students out sick and not enough substitute teachers available.
Olathe Public Schools are the second biggest school district in the state.