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Nearly 200 doctors clash with school district that refuses to mandate masks

Students at Wyandotte County High School in Kansas City, Kan., in March. A fight is underway in neighboring Johnson County about masks in schools. (Charlie Riedel/AP)

An unusual fight over a mask mandate in schools has been unfolding in a high-achieving district in Kansas, where nearly 200 doctors have been fighting a superintendent who has refused to issue a mandate despite rising coronavirus rates.

The doctors, many of whom have children in the Blue Valley school district in Johnson County, have become activists, writing letters and trying to build support in their community for a mandate.

The county commission on Thursday voted on a mask mandate for elementary schools and middle schools with sixth-graders — but according to the Kansas City Star, school districts can either institute a tougher mandate or opt out under their limited home-rule authority. Later, the Blue Valley school district a letter saying the district would impose a mask mandate for K-8 schools.

It said in part: “There are two driving forces influencing our decisions as we enter a new school year amid a continuing pandemic: The safety of our students is always paramount, and keeping our students in school — in person — is critical to their long-term success and well-being. With this in mind, the Blue Valley School District will follow the county’s health order and require masks inside school buildings for all early childhood and K-8 students, staff and visitors beginning August 9, 2021. Masks inside our high school buildings are highly recommended for all high school students, staff and visitors.”

Before the decision, doctors had worked overtime to push for a mandate.

“I am beside myself,” Fariha Shafi, a doctor who is writing letters and signing petitions in support of a mask mandate, said before the vote today and the district’s new mandate was announced. “I don’t understand why you would choose not to do this, because you already have data that it works. It worked in your own district [last school year]. What is preventing you from doing it now?”

With school starting in the district on Aug. 18, the doctors had sent letters to Superintendent Tonya Merrigan and other community leaders, saying in part:

We urge you to not succumb to the pressure of a vocal minority to prematurely abandon these critical risk mitigation measures. Listen to the science, data, and professional advice from our public health officials who have dedicated themselves to overcoming this pandemic. For those that advocate for personal choice over community health and safety, we refer to the existing precedent within the school district’s “Nut Safer” policy. This important initiative has undoubtedly saved the lives of many children with life-threatening food allergies … As the leading school district, we must prioritize the health and well-being of all our students, teachers, and staff, as well as the greater community.

Asked earlier why the superintendent was not issuing a mask mandate, Kaci Brutto, communications director for the district, said in an email: “Information about masking can be found on our district website. It is important to note that guidance from local, state, or national agencies influences these measures and could result in revisions to these practices.”

Johnson County’s coronavirus positivity rate has been rising and is now at 8.4 percent — up from 7.9 percent last month. Hospitalizations among the unvaccinated are also increasing, according to the county health department.

Physician Johanna Finkle, who signed the letter, said she sees pregnant patients every day in her practice, including some who are not vaccinated and at risk of catching the virus.

“Of course, I talk about vaccination all day,” she said. “And I hear a lot of reasons why they don’t get vaccinated. They cite fertility concerns, and I cite experts who recommend vaccines for pregnant women.”

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention recently updated its guidance on masks and advised that everybody above the age of 2 to wear masks indoors because of the spread of the delta variant.

CDC changes course on school guidance, advising everyone to wear masks

Sloane Heller, a parent who is helping coordinate the doctors’ initiative, said there is a “loud” minority group that is ignoring the science and pushing against masking, and officials refusing to impose a mandate are defying recommendations of the federal government and other experts.

“That is sending a message to our students that it’s okay to defy the experts and what our doctors and scientists tell us about what is best for ourselves and community,” she said. “And that is a really dangerous message to send.”

As new school year looms, debates over mask mandates stir anger and confusion

In Johnson County, opponents to a mask mandate have attacked pro-mandate activists, publishing their names, their addresses and their children’s names.

State Sen. Cindy Holscher (D) said that one factor complicating the already difficult situation is a law passed by the legislature and signed earlier this year by Gov. Laura Kelly (D) that allows schools to offer no more than 40 hours of remote learning to any student enrolled in the school district.

Under the law, only the school board can authorize individual students to temporarily attend school via remote learning in excess of 40 hours. And the Kansas State Board of Education can authorize a district to provide remote learning in excess of 40 hours in certain extreme circumstances.

“This is tied to education funding,” she said. “So essentially if something happens, if there is a big covid outbreak and there is a need to shut down, our schools can’t necessarily switch over to remote learning.”

“In the field I am in, day in and day out, we are seeing young patients, children, being admitted with covid who were not vaccinated,” Shafi said, adding that she will feel comfortable sending her child to school only if “everybody masks up.”

(Update: County commission votes for mandate and later school district approves one)