School Board Removes Audience for Interrupting Discussion on Reimposing Mask Mandate

A Kansas school district of 27,000 students opted to keep a mask optional policy in place for middle- and high-schoolers when classes resume Wednesday. But the school board was forced to kick out the crowd of meeting attendees after being interrupted so frequently that the president shut down the Monday night meeting twice.

About 20 people protested outside with signs against a potential school mask mandate before the Shawnee Mission district meeting began, and some of the protestors went inside, KMBC reported. The special meeting included no public comment period, but some of the people who opted to attend the event heckled and interrupted the speakers.

The board eventually moved the meeting to a virtual format and forced the public attendees to leave.

In a briefing on Tuesday, Superintendent Michelle Hubbard said that the tone of the meeting was "disappointing, to say the least," and added that the board has been under high pressure.

Board members initially passed a motion at the meeting that would have required masks for all students for the first two weeks of classes, the Shawnee Mission Post reported. But some board members objected to altering the district's plan so quickly.

At the end of the meeting that saw more than three hours of presentations and debate, the board switched course and decided to keep masks optional in middle and high schools, according to KMBC. Mask requirements are still in place for the district's elementary schools.

Board president and at-large member Heather Ousley said the meeting had been organized so the board could properly consider health risks like the Omicron variant before classes resumed, the Mission Post reported.

School Masks
About 20 people protested outside with signs against a potential school mask mandate before a school district meeting in Kansas on Monday. Above, wearing masks to prevent the spread of COVID-19, elementary school students line up to enter their school in Richardson, Texas, on Tuesday, August 17, 2021. LM Otero/AP Photo

Hubbard said the district started the academic year 250 employees short and has struggled to find enough bus drivers, food service workers and substitute teachers. The situation is expected to get worse as Omicron takes hold, she said.

"It'll be all hands on deck for the next month," she said. "There are times when the people at the district office have to roll into schools and roll up their sleeves and support our teachers so that they can support kids in the classroom."

She noted that the district's policy allows the district to require masks if case numbers and quarantines in a school surpass 3 percent.

The board's vote came after more than 200 local health professionals sent a letter asking Johnson County, Kansas, commissioners and school districts to keep in place a mask mandate. Commissioners in Johnson County, which is the state's most populous, are prepared to decide Thursday whether to scrap their mandate for elementary schoolchildren.

The letter noted that the U.S. has been "shattering" case records and said, "Now is not the time to let our guard down."

The University of Kansas Health System in Kansas City, Kansas, is treating 120 COVID-19 patients, up from 40 on December 1. Fifteen patients—all unvaccinated—are on ventilators.

"This is a dangerous moment for us," said Dr. Steve Stites, the hospital's chief medical officer, during a briefing Tuesday.

"There are a lot of kids who aren't vaccinated. There are a lot of teachers who may not be vaccinated. And the problem is going to be that if you have too many kids out of the classroom, if you have too many teachers who can't teach and not enough administrators, you can't run the program. You're going to struggle."

In the state's Manhattan-Ogden district, the school board voted Monday to reinstate a districtwide mask mandate, changing a policy that had been in place since November 1 that made masks optional for high schoolers. The board will revisit the decision early next month.

The Associated Press contributed to this report.

Kansas COVID
The Shawnee Mission school district in Kansas is struggling to find enough teachers and staff, an issue that officials expect to worsen with the spread of the Omicron coronavirus variant. Above, signs display COVID-19 information before the game between the Kansas Jayhawks and the Coastal Carolina Chanticleers outside of Memorial Stadium on September 12, 2020, in Lawrence, Kansas. Brian Davidson/Getty Images