USD 475 Board of Education votes to make masks optional

The USD 475 Board of Education voted Monday to make masks optional in its schools outside Fort Riley.

The USD 475 Board of Education voted unanimously on March 7 to make masks optional in all of its schools outside of Fort Riley. The schools on Fort Riley will continue to follow the fort’s mandates regarding masks.

Superintendent Reginald Eggleston said the school principals went over new protocols Tuesday morning to ensure all the schools are on the same page.

In addition to making masks optional, Eggleston said the district will remove the “test-to-stay” program and implement a “test-to-know” system instead. This is based on guidance from the Kansas Department of Health and Environment, which requires diagnostic symptomatic testing for the district to continue to receive a grant.

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s recommendations on masks nationally are now based on the number of cases, hospital capacity and COVID hospitalizations in each area, Eggleston said. As of last month, the CDC no longer requires masks on buses. Based on this information, the district staff recommended making masks optional.

Under the new protocols, students and staff who test positive for COVID-19 must not return to school or work for a minimum of five days and then should wear a mask for five days when they return unless they test negative. Students and staff who choose to quarantine because of contact with someone who tested positive should do the same.

Before the decision took place, multiple members of the community spoke during public comment to voice their opinions on the mask mandate.

One high school student who attended the meeting asked the board to make and keep masks optional in its schools.

“We’ve been wearing masks for two years now. It’s time we stop. We can’t keep doing this forever,” she said. “I dread walking into school each day. The masks make me feel isolated, disrespected and quite frankly, miserable.”

The student’s mother said it frustrated her that her and others’ children had to wear masks all day, when most other people, including members of the board, no longer wore them in gatherings. She said she wanted the decision for optional masking to continue without being changed again if pandemic numbers rise.

“This has to stay put. We can’t keep going back and forth,” she said.

Gabrielle Carroll, of Junction City, spoke about her experience as a USD 475 staff member. She said restrictions made it difficult to bond with children and other staff members and that those bonds are important for the children and their teachers.

She said masks also hide emotions that help teachers determine and reach out to those who are dealing with difficult situations and feelings.

“I don’t trust that you will not re-mask my child and enforce other restrictions once again when a new variant hits, as we all know is going to happen,” she said. “I ask that you choose to make masks and other COVID restrictions optional from this point, this day forward, and that you take into account more than ever before, the impact COVID restrictions have had on emotional and mental health.”

A Junction City parent of a kindergarten student at Washington Elementary school said she is on medication for an illness she has and said she knows she is not the only sick parent that children of the school district come home to. She asked the board to keep the mask mandate in place for the remainder of the school year.

“I’m all for pro-choice until what you do or do not do affects other people,” she said. “I believe that’s where a line needs to be drawn.”

Lindsay Wells, of Junction City, said the district is one of the last in America to drop the mask mandate in schools, and she hopes the optional status will not be changed again in the future.

“This board, formed to be representative of our community, has let parents down,” she said. “You have capitulated and cowered from taking a stand for our children’s health freedom. While damage to their learning, mental and emotional health and social wellbeing has taken place, you have drug your feet on this issue, and precious months and semesters have passed.”

After public comment and the district’s staff recommendation, Dr. Anwar Khoury, board member, moved to make masks optional in its schools outside of Fort Riley, effective immediately. Mark Hatcher, board member, seconded the motion, and the board unanimously voted for the change.

As soon as the board voted, multiple members of the board took off their masks, and members of the public who were present at the meeting cheered and applauded in approval of the decision.

Recommended for you