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Masks optional but recommended for new school year
USD 428 hopes to see fewer quarantine days
The Great Bend USD 428 Board of Education continues to maintain social distance at its Aug. 9 meeting. The board decided masks will be optional when school starts next week. - photo by Susan Thacker

Masks will be optional for students and staff when school resumes next week in Great Bend USD 428.

The school board met Monday and provided guidance to the administration as it works on its operational plan for 2021-2022.

Board members who received calls and emails on the subject of masks said there was no clear consensus from the public.

Superintendent Khris Thexton said the Legislature has put the decision-making in local hands.

“We definitely want to work with the health department, but understand that the board of education ultimately decides what is happening in the district,” he said.

“Last year we were fully masked when we started the year and we were able to finish the year without masks,” Thexton said. The district will need a flexible plan that can be revised if an increase in COVID-19 cases indicates a return to mandated masks is needed.

One area where masks will be required by federal mandate is on any public transportation, including school buses and vans. “Any kind of district vehicle of any kind, if there’s more than one person on that vehicle you have to wear a mask.” The district risks losing federal funding if it doesn’t comply, Thexton said. “If you climb on that bus, you have to be masked.”

Assistant Superintendent John Popp said the administration did not have a recommendation for the board. “We really feel this is a conversation we need to have rather than us telling you what we think because, honestly, there are experts all the way around this who have different opinions.”

Board member Lori Reneau said, “I feel we should strongly recommend masks but not require it.” She added that no student should be bullied or ridiculed for choosing to wear a mask. 

Popp predicted 50% of the families in the district will want their students to wear masks.

10-day quarantine

District officials hope to see fewer students away from school because of quarantines for close contact with someone who tests positive for COVID-19. The board reduced the social distance requirement from 6 feet to 3 feet.

Popp said it has been difficult to maintain 6 feet between desks in the classrooms. Reducing the requirement to 3 feet will allow teachers to put students into small cooperative groups while reducing the number of quarantined students.

Quarantines will be for 10 calendar days. Originally they were 14 days, but by the end of the last school year they had been cut to 10. 

“That gets kids back to school quicker,” Thexton said. Students returning from quarantine are checked by the school nurse.

The Barton County Health Department still recommends a 14-day quarantine period.

Board member Aaron Emmerson asked about the Legislature’s decision to place limitations on remote learning. The district is limited to 40 hours of remote learning per student. Anything beyond that could result in reduced funding for that student.

Students spent many hours in quarantine last year but were able to join the classes via remote learning. Now their absences will be treated like any sick day. Older students can do homework on their Chromebooks and parents of younger students can pick up packets.

“I think we’re really going to have to do a big adjustment on these quarantines,” board member Susan Young said. “Never mind what we do with masks or not, the quarantine issue is going to be something that we have to do better.”

Thexton did not know how many staff or students have received the vaccine but there is an incentive for students 12 and older who are involved in activities to be vaccinated. “They’re getting the vaccine so they don’t get quarantined.” That follows Kansas Department of Health and Environment guidelines, he said. “If you’re fully vaccinated, you do not quarantine (if you don’t show symptoms).”

“Just to clarify, quarantine is for unvaccinated,” Board President Jacquie Disque said.

“Correct,” Thexton said. “Or vaccinated with symptoms.”

Disque reviewed the board’s wishes:

• Masks will be recommended but not required.

• Weekly reassessments will be done – more if needed – and parents and the public will receive timely communication.

• Quarantine will be 10 calendar days for close contacts who are unvaccinated or for anyone with symptoms.

• Social distancing, hand washing and all sanitation measures from last year will continue.

• Anyone being transported on any school district vehicle carrying more than one person will wear a mask. The district will have disposable masks available.

• There will be 3 feet between students for social distancing but any close contact who is vaccinated will not have to quarantine.

With variants of the virus that causes COVID-19, the district will need to adjust as situations arise, Thexton said. The board’s direction gives the administration the power to assess the situation weekly or more often if needed and if a mask mandate in a building or district-wide is the best option, that step can be taken without waiting for the next board meeting.

Other changes for the start of the school year:

• Staff won’t be taking temperatures when students enter the building, as they did last year.

• Older students will be able to have lockers this year. Last year they did not have assigned lockers so there would be less congregation in the hallways.

• Asked if there will be a vaccination event at the schools for staff and eligible students, Thexton said that is a possibility he is looking into.