Mask mandate divides Holton: Parents transfer children, taunt school board member before BOE changes course

Jason Tidd
Topeka Capital-Journal

HOLTON — A small town school district has dropped its universal mask mandate after COVID-19 politics in the community turned so divisive that some parents switched school districts.

Holton USD 336 school board president Shelby Patch said after masks were mandated, she was called a child abuser and a Nazi. She has been harassed by fake Facebook accounts.

On Sept. 13, the school board removed the mandate during a meeting where the community overwhelmingly opposed masks. Now, masks are only required for unvaccinated students and staff who are close contacts of a positive case. Masks are also required on buses because of federal transportation rules.

"It's really hard to be a school board member at this time through this these muddy waters," Patch said. "You're trying to keep kids in school. You're trying to keep kids safe. You're trying to make sure teachers are safe, and make sure that you're doing what teachers need to do to teach kids. And you're also trying to work with parents as well.

"No matter what decision was made, we knew somebody wasn't going to be happy. So do I think it was the best decision? I did what my constituents felt was needed and listened to them."

Shelby Patch, president of the Holton Unified School District 336 school board, on Friday stands in front of the Holton Elementary School.

About 50 people attended the BOE meeting, and the vast majority were anti-mask.

About half didn't wear masks, despite signs at the high school entrances saying masks were required. A handful of the attendees who wore masks didn't wear them properly during the 2.5-hour COVID debate.

All school board members and school administrators wore masks.

More:A Holton mother’s COVID-19 led to Guillain-Barre. She is still fighting for her health.

In this town of about 3,200 people about a 30-minute drive north of downtown Topeka, mask policy has been divisive. The Holton school community has been so divided that about a handful of parents moved their children to the Jackson Heights school district about 5 miles north of Holton on US-75 highway.

"I feel like I am in COVID groundhog day," said Chelli Schuster, the school nurse. "This is the same stuff as last year. I feel like the only way we are going to get a handle on COVID is if we all work together to help mitigate the risk and stop transmission."

COVID-19 cases in Holton schools and Jackson County

Across the state, coronavirus pandemic indicators were lower during the summer than for much of the last school year. Holton was one of many districts that decided to start the school year without a mask requirement. Parent and staff surveys showed a majority wanted masks optional. 

"As the school year started, within weeks, we were having to quarantine classrooms and send kids home because once there was no masks in place, everybody had to quarantine at home," Patch said.

District numbers show five student cases — with 74 more students and five staff quarantined — at the elementary school in the first full week of school. Seven middle school students were quarantined.

The Kansas State Department of Education's statistics show enrollment for 2019-2020 was 1,154 at Holton.

Students in Jeff Folger's sophomore English class at Jackson Heights High School and Middle School start on a test Friday morning.

The Holton school district required masks last year, and because of the masks, children without symptoms got to stay in school when they were exposed to a sick classmate, Patch said. But quarantine guidelines are different when the infected individual and the close contact aren't both wearing masks.

At the request of district administrators and the school nurse, the board adopted a mask mandate.

The second full week of school added five more student cases at the elementary school, three at the middle school and 12 at the high school, as well as one high school staff. Another 149 students and staff were sent to quarantine.

The third week added two elementary, one middle and two high school student cases, with 21 more students quarantined.

The fourth week had zero new cases among students, but one worker at the elementary school and another at the high school tested positive.

More:COVID-19 spreads 'like wildfire,' infecting children at higher rates; 63 active outbreaks in Kansas schools

High School Principal Rod Wittmer said there were four volleyball players and two dancers who tested positive, while the other cases were "more random."

Two days after Holton schools began mandating masks, Jackson County had the sixth-highest case rate in the state, according to KDHE county COVID rankings. Three weeks later, the county had improved from 100th to 46th of 105 counties. The county is still classified as a hotspot.

"I think masks do help," Patch said. "I also think people are keeping their kids at home if they're sick."

Part of the basis for ending the mask mandate was a lack of spread among the quarantined students. School officials told Patch during the meeting that only a couple of the children sent home ever reported getting sick.

"Most of the children did not become sick afterwards," she said. "So they were, as people say, healthy — they didn't get symptoms after that."

As one parent told the school board: "One healthy kid being kept home from this school is one too many."

More:Less than half of Kansas school districts are participating in COVID testing strategies from KDHE

Patch said the surveys of parents and staff, as well as the local hospital CEO saying local coronavirus numbers had gotten better, were big factors in the board’s decision. For her personally, she liked knowing that another school district — Santa Fe Trail — had been using a similar plan since the start of the school year and had not been declared an outbreak.

The addition of a KDHE testing protocol also helped.

The school board directed administrators to create a medical advisory board, which could ultimately recommend mask requirements if cases start to rise, Patch said.

Some residents turn mean in divided community

"It definitely has divided the community," Patch said. "I have lost friends because of this, because they have a very strong opinion one way, and they definitely did not like when we voted for the mask mandate."

Patch said masking up once you are a close contact was the best compromise to keep youths in school. The decision has had less opposition than when masks were required.

"I was called lots of names," Patch said. "There were people that made fake Facebook accounts and messaged me derogatory things. They said that I would be ran out of town, that I should be brought up on child abuse charges. They call me a Nazi. Then my child was also, when parents told their kids things, then those kids reached out to my child and would be angry with her because of what I did."

"I can take people being mean to me. You know, I'm tough. But my kid did not run for the board," Patch said, adding that she didn't think the other children were being malicious.

She left her voicemail box full because there were too many phone calls to keep up with.

While she is glad to see people attending school board meetings and being involved in their children's lives, she wants people to be open-minded and respectful when discussing their perspectives.

"I’ll be honest, I was ready to resign," said Patch, who has been on the school board for 14 years, volunteering her time for the unpaid position. "People are passionate, and that's OK.

"I respect everybody's opinion, so I don't want to come across that I don't appreciate everyone's opinion, because I do. I do appreciate everyone's opinion. It was just how the delivery was, I think."

Parents move school districts based on mask rules

At least one parent during the school board meeting warned of "decreasing enrollment as parents look for options that better fit their needs with less intrusive control pushed down on them."

Patch said she knew of one family that switched school districts due to the COVID protocols, but those moves didn't factor into her vote on masks in Holton schools. 

"Parents have to do what they feel is best for their kids. We all do," Patch said. "If that was the decision that they would leave the school district, then they were doing what they felt was best for their children. And we don't want anyone to leave our district, but again, that is their parents’ choice, that they're doing what is best for their kids."

Jim Howard, superintendent of the Jackson Heights Unified School District 335, works from his office Friday.

Jackson Heights Superintendent Jim Howard said about six students from Holton and about six more from the nearby Royal Valley school district, which also required masks, have enrolled in his district.

Many more families with about 20 children had inquired about transferring and had taken the first steps to do so. He said they were waiting to see if the mask mandate was dropped.

"I want to grow as a school, but only because we're the better fit for a family," he said.

Howard said he didn't try to force parents to a decision before the upcoming enrollment count date. Regardless, the influx of students wouldn't result in any potential boost in funding for at least another year. Statistics from the 2019-2020 put the Jackson Heights enrollment at 371.

"When parents say they're going to pull their kids, I try to explain to them that if you're going to make a decision to come here, that you need to make a decision that this is your new school home," Howard said.

No masks required at Jackson Heights

Howard said he believes his COVID policies, including the lack of a mask mandate, were part of the reason he was hired this year to lead the district. He described his pandemic philosophy as a "common sense approach" that prioritizes parental choice.

The district doesn't require masks on buses, which is a federal transportation rule. Aside from questions on the legalities, the district doesn't want staff to be mask police.

"It's just not something where we are going to stop the drivers from driving to make sure all masks are on," Howard said.

About 10% of students and staff choose to wear masks, Howard said, though he said he doesn't personally believe masks work in schools.

"My main concern with the masks is that there's not enough efficacy," he said.

"You got to figure kids are taking them off, they take them off to eat. They're constantly slipping and sliding. Some of them wear cloth. Anyone that works in a school knows that the ability to make 400 kids wear them at a level of fidelity that actually makes a difference is highly unlikely."

The district does have other policies in place, such as enhanced cleanings of buildings, making hand sanitizer available and offering socially distanced seating options for children.

"The best defense is the parents at all checking the kid over and saying: 'Hey, they don't feel well. Let's stay home or let's go get tested.'"

He said he believes those policies are working. The district has only reported two COVID cases, one of whom was infected before the school year started.

He said Senate Bill 40 made it clear that school boards have local control and the ultimate say over COVID-19 policies. The bill allowed for expedited legal challenges to such policies, though Howard said he doesn't think it was intended for people to "get your pitchforks and torches, (but) it definitely made it easier for mobs to maybe pressure their schools."

"It's politically divisive but not here," Howard said of the pandemic response at Jackson Heights.

Does masking in schools work?

During a Tuesday media briefing by The University of Kansas Health System, infectious disease specialist Dana Hawkinson said all the medical data support the use of masking

"We are certainly staying in our lane with the medical and the science and data issues," Hawkinson said, "and the data is overwhelmingly supportive of masking in those high-risk situations."

Again on Wednesday, he said efforts to stop masking at school are wrong.

"Medically, that's the wrong decision, the wrong choice, the wrong messaging to send," Hawkinson said. "We have good evidence now, real world evidence, large random controlled trials about masking and effects on decreasing incidence rates of SARS-CoV-2 in the population.

"We have good school-based data about masking and other non-pharmaceutical interventions causing decreased rates of spread in those schools."

Students at Jackson Heights High School and Middle School eat breakfast Friday in the cafeteria before class.

Masking up is necessary to keep kids in school and avoid the potential for depression and other issues during quarantine and isolation at home, he said.

"There are people who continue to say it affects children negatively wearing masks, and it affects their social well-being and their emotional well-being," Hawkinson said. "That certainly is not supported by the data. That is not supported by those groups that spend almost every waking minute of their careers looking at children's health."

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, the American Academy of Pediatrics, the Kansas Chapter of the AAP, the Kansas COVID Workgroup for Kids, Children's Mercy and the Mayo Clinic are all supportive of masking in schools.

Hawkinson said some medical professionals have anti-mask opinions that are based on "non-medical reasons."

Two Holton doctors reject masks

Physicians Vance Lassey and Steven Bear, who have children in Holton schools, spoke against masks during the school board meeting.

"Masks don't protect children from getting respiratory viruses," Lassey said. "And due to mask touching and improper use, masking children may indeed increase the spread of germs, especially in young kids."

He pointed to a lack of masking elsewhere in the community.

"Go anywhere, go to Sonic, you'll see the kids have their masks off every chance they get in the community," Lassey said. "Masking them at school is the same thing as having to wear a raincoat during a hurricane, but only between the hours of 8 and 3."

Lassey argued that the spike in COVID cases locally was mirrored elsewhere and wasn't caused by the start of school. Likewise, more recent improvement in COVID cases "is not related to mitigation efforts," he said.

Case rates among school-aged youths jumped in the middle of August, peaking just after Holton schools started mandating masks, KDHE data show. The rates dropped within three weeks of the mandate.

"The prevalence of COVID in children is lower than the prevalence of our school teachers and staff, which in turn is lower than the prevalence of the general community," Bear said. "Which is to say the children are not a significant sources of spread of virus to the community."

That isn't consistent with what KDHE numbers show for prevalence in Jackson County. All youth age groups had case rates higher than the county as a whole during the week of Aug. 22, when the local surge peaked.

The 5-10 age group had a case rate more than 11 times the red zone threshold, the 11-13 age group was eight times the threshold and the 14-17 age group was 18 times the threshold.

The only age group with a higher case rate during that period was the 85 and older population.

School board member Rex Frazier asked the two doctors why their mask opinions are contradictory to what other physicians have told him, as well as the CDC, the American Academy of Pediatrics, the Mayo Clinic and Children's Mercy.

"Why are they recommending mask?" Frazier asked. "What is it you know, or was it they don't know?"

"Understand the CDC is not one monolithic thing," Bear said. "The people at the top are politically appointed people. The people at the bottom are actually doing the science. If you look at the science, which I think we're all capable of, I think you can read the hard data for ourselves and come to our own conclusions."

Bear said the data "suggests that masks don't save our kids."

Frazier asked whether Children's Mercy and the Mayo Clinic are political.

"To suggest that they don't have a point of view on their own that is guiding their guidelines might be a little maybe naïve," Bear said.

"I'm struggling as a school board member," Frazier said. "I have a group of you who are patrons and doctors who are saying this, and I have another group and doctors saying this."

Many voices in the crowd said Frazier represents the parents.

"If I put out a survey," Frazier asked, "that said do you want to get straight As and 66% said yes, should we simply get straight As?"

Parents opposed masks

Brady Black, who helped organize the anti-mask-mandate Facebook group USD 336 Parent Voice, accused the school board of allowing the pandemic to supersede education. He said parent surveys showed the vast majority wanted to make masks optional.

"We have a seat belt mandate in Kansas," Frazier said. "Should we, or should parents be able to decide if their kids are belted?"

Pastor John Wisdom said having a mask mandate at school but not in the broader community "would be like me saying to my son, wear your seatbelt one place we go but nowhere else." He pointed to a lack of masking at the local Walmart, churches and a volleyball tournament.

"If it's a seatbelt issue, then you tell us we need your kids to wear a seatbelt wherever they go, put a mask on wherever they go — if that's really truly your conviction," Wisdom said.

Some parents spoke of childhood trauma, missing out on parties and other activities, suicide, statistical risks, freedom, parental rights and trusting God over fear of COVID.

"It's not a mask issue, and you need to be on honest tonight," Wisdom said. "I'm asking some of you please grow a backbone as my representative and just do the right thing."

"As a Christian man, my Bible tells me that God permits authority to no one unless it comes from him," he continued. "So where you sit tonight, if you are Christian men and women, you have been vested with authority by God Almighty. And he will tell you, and I will represent him tonight, you will be held accountable for how you vote."

More:As flu reporting season starts in Kansas, will lax COVID-19 policies result in more sickness this year?

One unidentified community member claimed the flu is more deadly than the coronavirus disease for children.

"What about influenza? That's more deadly than COVID to this age group," the man said.

That isn't true, said Angela Myers, a pediatric infectious disease specialist at Children's Mercy. Over the past year, COVID-19 has in fact been more deadly than the flu among children.

"In a typical influenza season, we have between 100 and 150 kids pass away in our country from influenza," Myers said two weeks ago during a hospital media briefing. "We've had 450 kids in the last 18 months die from COVID-19."

Two children have died in Kansas from COVID-19.

Three Jackson County children have been hospitalized with the disease.

Carrie Saia, CEO of the critical access Holton Community Hospital, was the lone community voice supporting masks. She said public health requires community involvement. She warned of the difficulty with transferring patients from the emergency room who need intensive care and how a full ER could affect health care.

"We may not think that that impacts our kids," Saia said, "but if our kids are injured and hurt and we have a full congested ER, that makes an impact to our care of our communities."