OSWEGO — The Oswego USD 504 Board of Education on Monday voted to end the district’s mask mandate that had been in place since the start of school. The board opted instead to strongly recommend masks in district buildings beginning Tuesday.
Board members heard from two district patrons Monday, Jessica Zwahlen and Cassandra Miller, before taking up the issue themselves.
Zwahlen has children in district schools and said parents should decide if their children wear masks to school. She noted that children aren’t getting ill, or as ill, with COVID-19 as adults. She said the virus impacted her family. Her kids were ill for a day. She acknowledged that not all kids have the same reaction to coronavirus and that the virus is serious.
“We were fortunate,” Zwahlen said.
She disputed the effectiveness of masks, given the size of one COVID-19 virus particle. However, medical professionals have previously noted, even to the USD 504 board, that the virus travels on larger particles or droplets when coughed or sneezed out of an infected person. Masks stop the larger particles.
“I think if someone wants their child to wear a mask, then they have that choice. But I don’t think that everyone should have to wear them,” Zwahlen said.
She said one of her children came home with a soaking wet mask, an issue she visited with the school nurse about and resolved. She said breathing through a wet mask possibly carrying bacteria could be harmful as well.
Cassandra Miller said she has a student in USD 504 and shared numbers from Labette County USD 506, which strongly recommends that students wear masks. Since the start of the school year USD 506 has yet to hit a 2% positivity rate, Miller said. In October, USD 506 has had five COVID infections, four in students and one in staff.
COVID-19 infections are down in Labette County as well. The Labette County Health Department reports 16 current cases as of Monday and 3,405 total cases since the pandemic began. So far, 59 people have died and 63 have been hospitalized in the county because of COVID. COVID cases were much higher in the county in the summer, hovering at and above 100 active cases.
Minutes later board members began talking about masks. The board initially made masks optional this summer. In mid-August, local health professionals met with board members and convinced them to require masks and revisit the policy later. On Monday, only Oswego USD 504 and Parsons USD 503 required students to wear masks. As of Tuesday, it’s only Parsons.
USD 504 Superintendent Doug Beisel told board members that medical professionals are still recommending masks in school buildings.
He asked building principals attending the meeting what they were hearing from staff.
Service Valley Principal Theresa Farris said the majority of her teachers want to do away with masks.
Neosho Heights Principal Sheila Robison said most of her teachers supported a mask requirement.
“Remote learning is hard. It’s hard for kindergarten students to be on the computer, especially now with the guidelines we have to follow for remote learning,” Robison said.
Oswego Junior Senior High School Principal Rob Schneeberger said every teacher who contacted him wanted to remove the mask mandate. It’s difficult to maintain full mask compliance with middle school and high school students, the principals said. Schneeberger said the volleyball coaches said their players would continue to mask through the end of the season so they could still have modified quarantine if exposed to someone who was not wearing a mask.
If a student is wearing a mask and gets exposed to someone who tested positive for COVID he or she could be placed under a modified quarantine. He or she would have to continue to mask but could attend school unless symptoms develop during the 10 days. Testing is required as well. If the student was not wearing a mask and was exposed, the quarantine would be served at home.
The high school has not had a COVID case since the start of the school year. Some have been quarantined because of exposures outside of school, however, board members heard.
Board member Terry Karlin said he’s seen several Southeast Kansas districts with little to no COVID exposure this school year, including Oswego.
“To me this is a very difficult decision. If it was my own kids I would prefer to make that decision myself,” he said, but he worries about making a decision for all families. Still, Karlin said he would support eliminating the mask mandate and strongly recommend masking.
Board member Kris Redburn agreed, as long as there was a provision to return to masks if case counts increased above 2%.
Beisel said he chooses to wear a mask. He had presented a plan for board members to consider that would remove the mask mandate. Instead, masks would be strongly recommended in district buildings. The school’s positive COVID case count would be monitored and if the rate rose above 2% in a building, that building would be under a mask mandate for a minimum of 10 days or until the positive case rate drops below 2%. The case rate includes everyone working in or attending school in that building.
Masks would still be required on school transportation.
“Our priority is to keep students and staff healthy,” Beisel said.
School nurse Fern Vail reminded board members that if there is not a mask mandate that modified quarantine would not be an option for students if they did not have a mask on when exposed. They would have to quarantine at home and participate in remote learning.
Under the proposed policy, students would have to go home.
Vail also said that she has tested nine people for COVID using the rapid 15-minute test and has had no positive results.
Board member Lewis Riley said he feels strongly that kids need to be in school. Students struggled during the pandemic and are getting caught back up under the current protocol.
Board member Tina Dinnsen suggested the 2% rate was changed to districtwide because siblings may be in different buildings.
Cory Zwahlen, who attended the meeting with his wife, Jessica, noted that USD 506 is using a mask recommendation and is doing well so that should work in Oswego.
Board member Steven Charles said while the masks the school distributes to students will not fully protect a student from getting the virus they will slow the spread. He wanted to stay with the mask mandate.
Riley said his concern was if the COVID positive rate starts increasing in the community. He said the board can always reconsider the issue at a future meeting.
Redburn noted the proposal already calls for action by requiring masking in buildings if the case rate jumps to 2%.
Redburn made a motion to accept Beisel’s proposal to drop mandatory masking and opt for a strong recommendation for masking. If the case rate climbs to 2% in a building, that building would require masking for 10 days or until the case rate drops below 2%.
The motion passed on a 4-3 vote. Board members Redburn, Nikki Lewis, Karlin and Cindy Sanders voted yes. Charles, Dinnsen and Riley voted no.
In other business, the board:
— Met in closed session two times to discuss non-elected personnel. After the sessions, the board accepted the resignation notification letter from Service Valley secretary Leslie Keller. Her resignation will be effective at the end of the school year, May 27, 2022.
— Approved an out-of-district application for a new Service Valley student.
— Discussed a plan to refinance a 2013 bond issue with Stan Jones of Stifel Nicolaus and Co. No action was taken. The board will meet on Oct. 25 to discuss it again.
— Discussed supply issues for food service.