Hiawatha School Board graphic

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The Hiawatha School Board voted Monday night to remove the in school mask mandate and transition it to “highly recommended” effective at end of day Friday.

Board member John Wright made the motion, it was seconded by Amy Kopp and the final vote was 4-3 with Wright, Kopp, Andrea Groth and Ian Schuetz voting yes and board members Jeff Brockhoff, Keith Erdley and Tom Simmer voting against the motion. The motion was made to be in effect at end of day Friday in order to give administrators time to put a plan of action in effect and also not cause any potential quarantine issues this week with prom scheduled on Saturday.

The board members in favor of the motion said they felt like county cases were low and the health risk to the schools were also low. There had not been a positive case among students in several weeks and most recently one staff member had tested positive.

A few board members said they had been on the fence about the issue, while others were adamant in their feelings.

Board members against the motion expressed concern about finishing the school year strong without further quarantines and making sure spring athletics and graduation was not affected.

The vote came after board members heard from County Health Officer Robin Downard, who reported on the continuing low positive COVID cases in the county — something that has been a trend since the beginning of February. She also said that with the availability of the vaccines, nearly 25 percent of the county was fully vaccinated. When asked by board members if quarantine protocol had changed recently she verified that it had not. If someone is exposed they can test after 5 days with no symptoms and if that test is negative the person can come out of quarantine on Day 8. If a person declines to test, the quarantine is a full 10 days as long as the person does not develop any symptoms of COVID-19. This is different than at the beginning when quarantines lasted 14 days and there was not an option to test to get out.

Downard gave a recommendation to continue with the mask mandate within the schools as there was only 28 school days left in the current academic year.

“I know masks are a pain, but I would hate to see seniors miss out on graduation or prom,” she said, noting she would still have to quarantine anyone who was exposed within that 6 feet for 10 minutes or more.

Downard said she wanted to see the district continue with the mask mandate in place to ensure a full spring of activities.

Board members also heard from district nurses Erin Wenger and Whitney McCauley, who reported only one positive staff member in recent weeks and one student in quarantine this past week due to an outside contact. They confirmed it had been several weeks since a positive student case occurred in the district.

Board member Ian Schuetz dived into the discussion that involved all of the board members and school administration. He admitted to being on the fence himself, but said he wasn’t as concerned about the health aspect of not wearing masks as he was about quarantines causing issues with staff and students finishing the fourth quarter of the academic year. With prom scheduled for Saturday, there was also a concern about keeping students safe through that event.

“I’d like to see masks gone, but don’t want to jeopardize the end of the school year,” he said. “I feel we are over the hump from the health standpoint, however quarantines are out of our control.”

Board member Amy Kopp said that the students would all be in close proximity during prom, such as riding together in vehicles, dancing and hanging out for photos and that was beyond the board’s control. She said she contacted Sabetha administration — which has not required masks in the school, and noted that their cases within the district had remained low to non existent.

Kopp continued to say that she felt the Hiawatha schools were jeopardized by what’s going on outside of the eight daily school hours, rather than contact while in class.

“We can’t live in a bubble,” she said.

Board member Andrea Groth said she was for getting rid of the masks — noting while the risk had not zeroed out, it certainly had lessened — and touched briefly on the point of mental effects that students have from being masked all day. Board member John Wright agreed, stating he went into a business recently and no one was wearing masks and everyone was all smiles. He said he felt that everyone was much more lighthearted without the masks.

Board President Tom Simmer said he wanted to keep the mask mandate in place — holding tight for the last 28 days of school. He said he had received many emails — for and against — and felt that the district had made it this far and felt they needed “to keep the course.”

“If we end up having kids who can’t make it to graduation — well I don’t want any part of that,” he said.

Wright said he also felt that now the vaccine distribution was in Phase 5 — that juniors and seniors could get vaccinated if they felt concern. He also mentioned other school districts who had never implemented mask mandates unless they were required by the county for a time. He said he feels Hiawatha “looks like fools for being so uptight.”

Board members Keith Erdley and Jeff Brockhoff both expressed concern at loosening the mask mandate. Erdley said he felt it would be wonderful to get rid of the masks and go back to normal life, but noted that he felt students had adapted well to the requirement. He was concerned over losing classroom time these last weeks when it was most important.

Erdley, who travels much for his work noted that while Kansas was doing OK with cases other states were not and it could only be a matter of time before this would affect Kansas.

Brockhoff said he too would like to keep the mask mandate in place to ensure students were able to participate in graduation, didn’t miss finals or important classroom time. He said he felt students had adapted to wearing masks and noted it may be more disruptive to them and staff to remove the mandate.

Superintendent Lonnie Moser said he would follow the board’s guidance, but indicated the district principals would need some time to adapt the classrooms and possibly put some other restrictions in place if students and staff would not be required to wear masks. He said the district had implemented some lessening of restrictions based on the positive trend of low cases in mask to mask situations. Without masks, those changes would need to be evaluated.

Hiawatha Elementary Principal Paul Carver said some extra time would be helpful, as the sizes of rooms were an issue, busing for normal transportation and many field trips had been scheduled — which are times when students will mix together.

He also advised that some parents may be very concerned and request remote learning, but noted the district had really backed off of offering that option.

“It’s a tough decision,” he said.

Although Schuetz had apparent reservations, he mentioned that he wanted to allow building principals time to make adjustments and also said they could return to the mask mandate if issues occur. He noted many staff members had taken advantage of the early chance to become vaccinated.

“If it bites us in the butt again, we can change back,” he said.

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