Lynne Hermansen
Special to The Gardner News
Johnson County Board of Commissioners acting as the County Board of Health rescinded the mask order for students Kindergarten through 6th grades at their Feb. 17 meeting.
Becky Fast, commissioner, dissented from the motion.
Fast said she had concerns for her medically fragile and vulnerable constituents and a lack of strategies to protect them.
“IEPs don’t accommodate Covid,” she said. “How do we work with them. There is a lot at risk.”
Dr. Samni Areola, county department of health director, said the CDC director had spoken out the day before about updating masks guidance.
“We will continue to protect the immuno-compromised and work with school districts,” he said. “The key is the adherence to those who are sick stay home and the exposed follow quarantine protocols.”
Dr. Areola said it was a multilayered approach, and the accessibility of the vaccine helped greatly but opening things up always created a risk of cases rising.
“We will try to minimize outbreaks, and I think we have enough resources,” he said.
Fast said she wanted an evaluation of what support meant with outcomes and strategies because early special education students and children from birth to the age of four were still unable to receive a vaccine but were in school buildings.
“There are anxious families right now, and it would be beneficial to the community,” she said.
Janee Hanzlick, commissioner, said she too wanted to know what plans were in place to safeguard vulnerable students and staff.
Dr. Areola said masks were part of a multilayered approach.
“We have to continue to focus on the vulnerable, but a lot of vaccinated people avoided serious illness,” he said. “The school environment and access to vaccines is important to continue to take steps as a community.”
Dr. Areola said they wanted people to wear sufficient masks and work collectively as a community with hospitals and monitoring risk and mitigation efforts.
Hanzlick said she was impressed and reassured they would continue to navigate through challenging waters.
Dr. Areola presented the current Covid statistics to commissioners stating there were 306 cases per 100,000 residents in the county at a 12.2 percent positivity rate.
“It is higher than before the surge, but the numbers are dropping,” he said.
377,970 residents in the county are fully vaccinated, Dr. Areola said, with the 5 to 11 year age group at 33 percent and 43 percent for the first dose, and the numbers of new cases are dropping.
“Vax rates are pretty good for the county and remarkably effective against Covid,” he said. “We will continue to work no matter policy changes and wearing masks is still important especially for the sick and vulnerable.”
Shirley Allenbrand, vice chair commissioner, said she had had ongoing communications with school boards and superintendents.
“I feel we have the metrics in place and are successful in implementing them,” she said.
Allenbrand said their goal had always been to keep children in school and not learning remotely.
“I would be remiss not to thank our health director and team for all they have done and the hospitals,” she said. “It has been a team approach.”
Allenbrand said she also wanted to thank the school boards and superintendents for the task they have been faced with throughout the last two years.
Hanzlick said the county dashboard numbers had gone down even more today with 298 cases per 100,000 residents at a 11.9 percent positivity rate.
“It will be nice to see it below 10 percent,” she said.
Dr. Areola said he was happy the vaccine was readily and broadly available.
“The optic is not as high as we want yet though,” he said.
The numbers of vaccinated children were growing and increasing, however there was still a delay for children under 5 years old, but they expected it to be readily available soon, he said.
Dr. Areola said they had been working closely with schools since the beginning of the pandemic and would continue to do so.
“Our job supporting them hasn’t changed,” he said. “We will continue to keep options open but leave decisions to involving the stakeholders, as schools and Superintendents have their own thresholds.”
Hanzlick said they were pivoting to work with individual districts and schools instead of brushing a broad health order, but it had been a difficult decision she had agonized over and would always turn to the public health officials expertise.
“We are not throwing our hands up in the air,” she said. “There are measures in place now not to go off the rails.”
Hanzlick said the reassurance of the vaccine being more available helped guide her decision.
“We need to make sure we tailor situations to the vulnerable still,” she said. “It doesn’t mean the pandemic is over and we won’t have to revisit, but we will continue to follow public health officials guidance.”
Charlotte O’Hara, commissioner, said she wanted to know if they had the rates from the school districts that triggered going back to mask wearing and if it had ever been a reality in schools.
Dr. Areola said when the thresholds had been lower than the recently implemented 10 percent in a few school districts it had been triggered.
“I would rather not predict what will happen in the future,” he said. “Attention has to be paid to the school environment.”
O’Hara said recent school district actions had proven they had the authority the whole time with home rule allowing them to opt of the mask mandates.
“It is a long, protracted dodgeball,” she said. “I am glad the dodgeball is over. School Districts do have authority.”
O’Hara said she was glad that parents and school districts could make their own choices.
Jeff Meyers, commissioner, said it wasn’t a game of dodgeball.
“It is not a game at all and not politics,” he said. “I take data, research and experience to make the best decision.”
Meyers said however the time for masks had come to an end and things were moving in a positive direction.
“Dr. Areola has done an unbelievable job and isn’t done,” he said. “And a special shout out to teachers—you are our heroes.”
Commissioner Michael Ashcraft said he had time to reflect and it had been the longest year of his life, but ending the mask mandate was long overdue.
“It has been rough,” he said. “We have all suffered regardless where we stand on the issues.”
Ashcraft said now was a great time for the transition into a new more vibrant and prosperous future.
“We have moved beyond being a pandemic and still have to guard against and be vigilant at some level,” he said. “But the mandates taught us a lot and were problematic in some ways, and I’m ready for a more pleasant, constructive and meaningful way of life.”
Hanzlick said she wished to still make an appeal to the community to make right decisions that respect the needs and vulnerabilities of others.
“Be cognizant of those around you,” she said. “Be kind to those you know are vulnerable—no mandate will make people do the right and kind thing but look into hearts to do the right thing.”