The USD 253 Emporia Public Schools board of education voted to adopt a new policy requiring masks for students 11 and younger and strongly recommending them for middle and high school students, district staff and visitors during its regular meeting Wednesday night.
Additionally, masks will be required on all district transportation, while they will not be required outdoors or during activities and sports. All individuals will be required to maintain three feet of social distance and wash their hands frequently.
The new procedures were based upon the recommendations set out by the district’s COVID-19 Advisory Board during its meeting on Monday. Students 11 and younger will be required to wear masks because they cannot be vaccinated.
However, the issue was not without contention.
Five individuals addressed masks during public comment at the beginning of the meeting, with three being in favor of masks in school and two being opposed. After public comment closed, board members had to quell a few shouts from members of the public during the board’s discussion.
Lyon County Public Health Officer Dr. Ladun Oyenuga and Emergency Preparedness Director Jennifer Millbern said that they no longer agreed with the advisory board’s recommendations, as the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention updated its guidelines on Tuesday — the day after the advisory board met.
The CDC’s new recommendations encourage school districts to require masks for everyone inside a school building, including all students, faculty, staff and visitors.
Oyenuga and Millbern said that Lyon County Public Health’s recommendation to the school board was now in alignment with the CDC’s.
Oyenuga acknowledged that she knew that this wasn’t what anyone wanted, but said that the experiences she’s had in her personal and professional life have led her to believe this was the right decision.
“I don’t want my child going to school wearing a mask if I have a choice. But do I have a choice at this point in time? I don’t think I do,” she said. “They might feel like I’m being a little bit overly emotional, but having to go through the path I did in the past year, it’s not something I want either. … It isn’t something that we want. We don’t want it. But is it something that we might have to do? I think so.”
Melissa Ogleby made a motion to accept a policy based on the advisory board’s recommendations with the updated advice from Lyon County Public Health to require that everyone in a district building be required to wear a mask. The motion died as a result of failing to receive a second.
Mike Crouch expressed concern that requiring masks for some students would remove their parents’ ability to choose what was best for their children.
Meanwhile, Art Gutierrez said that he felt like the advisory board’s recommendations — without Lyon County Public Health’s new stance — were a fair compromise, and Jeremy Dorsey agreed, although he expressed feeling “COVID fatigue” and a desire to “move on” eventually.
Gutierrez made the motion to accept the advisory board’s recommendation and Dorsey seconded it. The motion passed 4-2, with Ogleby and Crouch opposed.
In other business, Assistant Superintendent of Business Rob Scheib updated the board on the ongoing process of creating an after-school child care program for the 2021-22 school year.
Scheib said he had been working with the Emporia Rec Commission, the Boys and Girls Club of South Central Kansas and the Emporia Arts Council to organize the program, with the goal of addressing learning loss while providing students with the opportunity to practice creativity and physical fitness.
He reported that the program is tentatively scheduled to begin Sept. 7.
The board voted 6-0 to approve the plans Scheib presented.
The school board also:
Approved the 2021-22 Procurement Plan for Child Nutrition Programs.
Approved the district’s updated emergency operations plan as explained by interim Assistant Superintendent of Human Resources Brad Kempf.
Received a report on the district’s Information Technology Legislative Post Audit from IT director Paul Beadles.