Parent seeks removal of USD 373 mask mandate

Chad Frey
The Kansan
Greeting kids on the first day of school is a tradition for school resource officer Jon Adkins, though this year at Northridge Elementary it looked a little different. Not only did he and students wear masks, gone were high-fives and handshakes -- elbow bumps were used instead.

A nearly one-hour meeting of the Newton Board of Education on April 13 contained only one agenda item, labeled as "SB40 Hearing."

According to superintendent Fred Van Ranken, the board heard oral arguments as the result of a parent filing a grievance against the school mask mandate — an action allowed under Senate Bill 400 which passed last month and became effective April 1. 

"That hearing was held at the request of a parent that wants us to remove our mask policy," said superintendent Fred Van Ranken. "The board served as hearing officer under Senate Bill 40."

In addition to Newton, such hearings with school boards over face covering requirements have started or been requested  multiple Johnson County schools and at least one Sedgwick County school.

The board did not make any decisions on April 13, scheduling a meeting to deliberate on the issue for April 14. 

"A decision will be made sometime after that, and given to the requestor at that time," Van Ranken said. "If there are any changes as a result of that, those will be announced at that time."

In March, the governor signed into law a comprehensive package pushed by state GOP lawmakers that placed limits on COVID-19 restrictions at all governmental levels. That includes local school boards, which have been given under the new law sole authority over closing down schools or implementing virus restrictions.

At the same time, though, any "aggrieved" person is now able to request a hearing with the school board to be held within 72 hours to review whether a order is necessary, and a board has to issue a decision within a week.

If unsatisfied, the person then can essentially file a civil suit in court for a hearing within 72 hours, and a decision to be made within a week after. The school board would have to prove that such an order was "narrowly tailored" and is the "least restrictive means," a high standard, or else relief from the order is granted.

Danica Dickson filed the grievance on behalf of her son, requesting that testimony be performed in a session open to the public. 

Dickson testified that her son was removed from class and disciplined for violating the school mask policy when he was not able to keep his mask over his nose in class. She said her son wears his mask under his nose to keep his glasses from fogging over. 

She also took issue with the school spending several weeks in hyrid learning — a mix of in school days and online ony school days — and remote (online) only modes of learning during a surge of COVID-19 cases during the school year. 

"Four two solid months, you guys made a choice to quarantine my healthy child," Dickson said. "You socially isolated him with no regard for his social development needs. Then you brought him back to school after Christmas, and he was grateful for that. He was excited to see other kids." 

She said he was then asked about his mask being worn below his nose, repeatedly. 

"My son has the right to see when he learns. He has the right to breathe freely. He has the right to not be removed from his education and punished for trying to see and breathe," Dixon said. 

Caleb Smith, principal of Newton High School, was asked to brief the board on the policy for the board of education during the hearing. That policy, which includes mask guidelines and exemptions for students, was approved by the board Sept. 19. 

The Harvey County Commission dropped a local mask mandate in March, after several months of having the mandate in place. That action occurred prior to the passage of SB 40.