USD 373 keeps mask rules through school year

Chad Frey
The Kansan

Following a special meeting to respond to an SB40 hearing, the Newton USD 373 Board of Education voted 6-0 to keep mask rules in place for students through the end of this school year. 

Masking rules in Newton USD373 have come under fire, with a SB40 hearing resolved by the board April 19 — keeping current rules in place through the end of the current school year.

"The board finds ... that a change in the mask policy at this time, so close to the end of school, would not be in the interest of students, staff or the community," said Mallory Morton, USD 373 Board of Education President while reading a prepared statement April 19.   ".. A continuation of the mask policy for the remainder of this school year through May 28, 2021, is narrowly taylored to address the COVID-19 health emergency and that masking the least restrictive alternative."

The board found that there were 26 days of class, 21 for seniors, 

The board approved policy will make masks optional for summer school activities, which are scheduled to being May 29. 

"The mask policy [will] be reviewed prior to the starting of the 2021-22 school year based on circumstances and evidence available at that time," Morton said. "The board reserves the right to reevaluate these policies should circumstances warrant the change."

While Harvey County reported 12 new cases in the week, with 13 recoveries and a total of six active cases and two new hospitalizations  new coronavirus cases leaped in Kansas, rising 21.6% as 1,634 cases were reported. The previous week had 1,344 new cases of the virus that causes COVID-19.

April 19 the board was responding to an SB40 fling from student parent Danica Dickson. The board heard April 12 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. 

SB 40 lets any person who is aggrieved by a COVID-19 order or restriction to bring to court a request to get relief from the order. Such a hearing would have to be held within 72 hours and a decision be made within a week after that. 

In cases like this, the government would have to prove the high standard that the order was narrowly tailored and was the least restrictive means; otherwise, relief is granted.

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. 

The board did not find in her favor. 

"The board finds that the complaint filed by petitioner Dickson be denied and dismissed," Morton said. 

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 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. The bill expressly exempted school districts from county decisions, giving school districts full autonomy and responsiblity for such decisions.