Newton school year will start mask optional

Chad Frey
The Kansan
Masking rules in Newton USD373 have come under fire, with a SB40 hearing this week and a decision coming April 19.

It was predictable — the final board of education meeting in Newton USD 373 prior to the start of the August 12 start of school opened with a debate of mask mandates. Concerned parents chose to use three minutes each during the public comment portion of the meeting to speak to the board of education. 

"I am asking that you support facial freedom for kids in our schools," said parent Becky Reimer. "Give power back to parents to choose what is best for the kids." 

She was supported by several when she asked for a show of hands — and three other parents who signed up to speak.

They quoted statistics showing "very few" hospitalizations and deaths of children  in the United States from COVID-19 since the pandemic began in early 2020. 

The board approved a policy adopted by the board of education Monday night made facial coverings optional — a personal choice — in schools as school begins this year. There is one notable exception  — specifically rules for busses. There, the district found their hands tied by federal transportation rules. Not mandating the use of facial coverings by passengers and staff on the bus could result in the loss of federal funding.

"You can be mad at us, but we will not put [Federal Funding[] in jeopardy," said Fred Van Ranken, superintendent of schools. 

During Monday's meeting the board approved a budget for publication that included $8 million in federal funds. 

 The district will have testing available — voluntary saliva testing will be available through the school system. Rapid testing will be available in each building for students with parental permission. Notification of needed quarantines and close contacts will be handled by the Harvey County Health Department. 

There was one speaker, out of about five at the meeting, who spoke in favor of requring facial coverings in schools — middle school science teacher Kieth Penner. 

"Harvey County currently has transmission rates that are at or above where we were when we started school last year, and we have a virus that we are seeing is twice as infectious," Penner said. 

Harvey County reported 47 cases and one death in the latest week. A week earlier, it had reported 34 cases and one death. Throughout the pandemic it has reported 3,844 cases and 73 deaths.

"My students will depending on my in my class to keep them healthy," Penner said. "My students will find their science teacher masked and doing his best to follow the guidance of medical science in order to keep them healty. My students will find the teacher down the hall unmasked, with a much different message. My students will begin to learn that science need not be taken seriously. My students will be confused and I imagine some will be frightened to come to school."

Penner asked the board to follow the guidance issued by the Harvey County Health Department, KDHE and the Kansas Department of Education which state facial coverings should be worn in school buildings. 

Penner pointed out, as did the Health Department and KDHE in issuing guidnace, that his students are too young to be eligible for vaccines.