Some parents didn’t like it, but a safety and operations plan that included a mask mandate helped the district resume classes after a brief suspension.

Angelie Macias, like thousands of Kansans, put off getting COVID vaccinations for herself and her family. New cases seemed to be tapering off over the summer, and she wanted time to see which vaccine was best.

Then school started at the Wellington school district in south-central Kansas. Unlike last year, no masks were required and no social distancing guidelines were in place. Competitive teams practiced like coronavirus was a thing of the past. But it wasn’t.

“It got really bad really fast,” the Wellington mom of three says.

By the end of the first week of school, her 12-year-old son Easton had a close contact exposure. The following Monday he tested positive.

Within a week of Easton’s positive test, his brothers Keyan, 7, and Brayden, 18, as well as their parents had confirmed cases. They were far from alone.

“We were in no way expecting what happened,” says Superintendent Adam Hatfield. “We implemented the testing protocols suggested by the health department. By the end of our first week, we were up to 18 positive tests. At the end of the second week, it was up to 40 positives and at outbreak levels in three of our six school buildings. That snowball was shocking.”

The district made headlines after it closed schools and suspended all sports and extracurricular activities for a week while it formulated a plan for reopening with new safety protocols. When classes resumed Sept. 7, masks were required in all school buildings and in all transportation vehicles, and social distancing was back in place.

While Wellington was the first Kansas district to close down this school year, it soon had company. On Sept. 2, the administration of the the Hope/White City/Woodbine district, known as Rural Vista, announced that it was closing all classes and activities for a week after much of the student body had been in close contact with a known case of COVID-19, and the majority of K-12 students were in quarantine.

By mid-September, the St. John-Hudson district was closed for a week and announced that mask requirements would be in place for reopening. On Sept. 29, the Kansas Department of Health and Environment reported 72 active outbreaks at schools with a combined 537 cases. That was up from 31 outbreaks and 179 cases two weeks earlier.

The fraught start to the school year has provided an all-too-telling reminder that the coronavirus pandemic still has to be dealt with. Although the spread of the Delta variant appears to have peaked, the rise in cases it brought on has filled hospital beds across the state and produced a surge in deaths exceeded only by the terrible toll of last winter.

Like Wellington, other districts are likely to spend the coming months walking a fine line between giving students the most freedom possible while preventing an explosion of COVID-19 infections. Last year’s efforts to tamp down the spread of COVID in schools met with considerable, high-volume dissatisfaction.  A widespread longing to return to pre-pandemic normalcy got a huge boost from the Kansas Legislature, who voted to require schools to teach in-person or risk losing funding this school year. But it’s added to the leadership challenge that school boards and superintendents have in keeping schools open.

Wellington’s experience suggests that schools can adapt to keep classes going, but perhaps not without navigating the tough values conflicts that come with issues such as requiring masks. In controlling the pandemic, though, it’s nearly impossible to avoid losing the support, or even patronage, of at least some parents who oppose mitigation measures. The inability to both control the pandemic and keep everyone happy could possibly carry long-term consequences, especially with voters heading to the polls in November to choose school board members. 

Wellington Superintendent Adam Hatfield addresses the audience at a school board meeting last month
Wellington Superintendent Adam Hatfield says the district was caught off-guard by COVID-19’s snowball effect in the early days of the school year. (Photo by Jeff Tuttle)
Wellington Superintendent Adam Hatfield says the district was caught off-guard by COVID-19’s snowball effect in the early days of the school year. (Photo by Jeff Tuttle)

‘We put it off’

Yet Macias says the district’s new safety protocols were a relief to her. 

“I was pretty upset, actually,” Macias says. “No wonder this got out of hand. They were basically doing nothing to protect the kids. Last year they had masks and they strictly enforced social distancing and had a schedule for hand washing. Everything was wiped down with disinfectant. We were scared then, and we should still be scared.”

She says her entire family has recovered, but everybody had different symptoms.

“Easton had the mildest case, Keyan had a high fever and was pretty sick for three or four days. Brayden was deathly sick. Fortunately, none of us landed in the hospital. But the school shutdown was the right thing to do, and I’m glad they are bringing back the precautions. Even now, they are saying they are doing their best to employ social distancing but can’t guarantee it. I’m not sure we’re doing enough.”

Her husband, Chris, who Macias said was very worried about his odds of becoming severely ill and tried to isolate from the family, came down sick anyway. He developed bilateral pneumonia and was still off work a month later but has not required hospitalization.

In hindsight, Macias says she regrets not getting eligible family members inoculated as soon as vaccines were available. 

“We put it off. I was trying to figure out which vaccine was the best and I wanted to wait a bit and make sure that no issues popped up. I wish now that we hadn’t waited. Now I worry about what long-term issue might come up because we had the virus. We don’t know whether it lingers in the body and might cause heart or lung or other issues months or years from now. We just know so little about it. I do know that as soon as we can, we are getting vaccinated.”

Macias is probably not the only parent holding off. Children ages 12 and up are eligible to receive a vaccine at present (although that could change in the near-future), and about 239 of Wellington’s 1,521 students are presumed vaccinated, according to KDHE. That gives the district a presumed vaccination rate of 157 per 1,000, which ranks 66th among the 286 districts being tracked on the agency’s dashboard. 

As challenging as things can be, districts don’t have to navigate the situation on their own. Wellington’s safety plan followed KDHE recommendations. The governor has created a Safer Classrooms Workgroup to stay on top of the spread of the virus and issue guidance to school boards. (Editor’s note: The Kansas Leadership Center, publisher of The Journal, is contracted with KDHE to encourage groups to develop locally tailored action projects related to vaccinations and testing through the Kansas Beats the Virus initiative.)

The workgroup recommends masking for all students and daily testing for any students who are symptomatic or have known exposure. The group includes pediatricians, family physicians, school nurses, pharmacists, school psychologists and other health professionals.

The group meets weekly and posts a report on their discussions with updated recommendations.

KDHE has promised to review guidelines regularly as the school year progresses and make changes depending on the data. As the year unfolds, keeping up with the rules could be one of the biggest challenges for school leaders, parents, students and teachers.

Wellington school board meets on masking
The Rev. Paul Carr with the Friendly Second Baptist Church in Wellington told the board a heartbreaking story of a family in his congregation devastated by COVID-19 only a week into the school year. (Photo by Jeff Tuttle)

‘In person, no matter what’

One of last year’s options to deal with COVID outbreaks – switching to remote learning or hybrid education – isn’t available now. A law passed last spring limits remote learning to a total of 40 hours per school year for any student.

“We won’t have students trying to learn on laptops through Zoom,” says Wellington school board member Pat Zeka. “School will have to be in-person no matter what.”

Many Kansas schools moved to hybrid or fully remote learning in 2020-21. Critical lawmakers said remote learning was not as effective as in-person classes and they thought students were falling behind. Parents had also had concerns.

Sen. Carolyn McGinn, a Sedgwick Republican, says the way the pandemic continues to unfold could force lawmakers to revisit that bill, but she doesn’t expect that to happen before the new legislative session opens in January.

“We’ve been trying to navigate through a pandemic not seen in over 100 years,” she says. “If we have so many teachers and staff out sick that operation becomes impossible or if the rate of student absenteeism goes too high, we will have to address it.”

One answer to keeping more kids in classrooms has been the development of a Test to Stay and Learn plan from KDHE that allows children with known exposure to remain in classes as long as they test negative at the beginning of every school day. 

Children who test positive on a rapid test must undergo a polymerase chain reaction test (PCR) and if it too is positive, they must quarantine at home for seven days and return to school only after a negative test. 

In order to lift the mask mandate, Wellington will have to meet specific criteria and masks will still be recommended when not required.

On Sept. 27, after heated comments from about 20 parents and teachers opposing masks, the Wellington board voted to keep a mask mandate in place based on positive cases on a building-by-building basis. They chose to ignore the county numbers in making the decision and agreed that masks would only be required if new cases exceed 2% of the student population in elementary schools or 1% in secondary schools.

They also voted to make testing available at each school from 6 to 7:30 a.m. daily to all students or staff in quarantine because of close contact. All those in quarantine are required to be masked. Fully vaccinated students not exhibiting any symptoms and those who have proof of a positive COVID test in the within six months are not required to quarantine following exposure  unless they are showing symptoms.

Wellington parent Josh Coomey speaks during a school board meeting last month
Josh Coomey, father of an eighth-grader and a first-grader, decided to pull his kids out of public school and send them to Wellington Christian Academy because he felt the district’s containment measures went too far. (Photo by Jeff Tuttle)
Josh Coomey, father of an eighth-grader and a first-grader, decided to pull his kids out of public school and send them to Wellington Christian Academy because he felt the district’s containment measures went too far. (Photo by Jeff Tuttle)

Masking still draws opposition

But the transition back to masking has come with a predictable amount of conflict. Even if masking is seen as a last resort by school officials, there are those who believe other options could still be put into play.

“Most of us had gone all summer long without having to wear a mask,” Zeka said. “We were so happy to be starting the year on a positive note and looking forward to a year far more normal than last year.”

When the board voted on the mask requirement, hers was the lone vote in dissent.

Parents Sarah Lawrence and Megan Allender both spoke at a special meeting of the Wellington school board on Sept 1. They opposed requiring students to wear masks.

There is no scientific evidence that masks harm children’s health, but parents at the meeting feared their consequences nonetheless. Lawrence wanted the board to put an emphasis on other measures that she thinks could be more important than masks to keep children safe.

“We know that ventilation plays an important role in reducing transmission,” she told the board. “Why have we not addressed things like windows that open and air purifiers in classrooms? How about scheduled handwashing and use of hand sanitizer? How about making sure children are not sharing personal items? How about regularly sanitizing door handles and other high-touch surfaces?

“I’m concerned that we give way too much credit to masks as the answer to transmission, and we aren’t doing the rest of what we need to do,” she says. “We need the entire environment to be considered. We can’t just slap a mask on everybody and call it good.”

Some concerns are more about practicality. Allender is mother to a first-grader. She says young children have trouble keeping masks on.

“My kid is only 6 years old. She wears it wrong, pulls it down past her nose or all the way to her chin or chews on it,” she says. “She has spent her entire school experience being required to have on a mask, and it breaks my heart to dig out the masks again this year.”

And mask requirements can even be the last straw for parents who are willing to send their children elsewhere. Josh Coomey, father of an eighth-grader and a first-grader, decided to pull his kids out of public school and send them to Wellington Christian Academy.

“I don’t like the way this has been handled,” he says. “There’s a bit of theater in it. I don’t know why they can’t just go by something like taking temperatures. I think if you don’t have any symptoms of sickness, go to school. If you’re sick, stay home.”

 But the new masking rules had defenders too.

The Rev. Paul Carr with the Friendly Second Baptist Church in Wellington told the board a heartbreaking story of a family in his congregation devastated by COVID-19 only a week into the school year. He says one child became infected at school and spread it to his entire family, resulting in one death and putting  a 2-year-old on a ventilator fighting for her life.

“I get that people want to exercise their rights and have the freedom to make their own decisions,” he says, “But I need you to understand that your rights end where mine begin. You don’t have a right to your freedom when it infringes on others’ rights to stay alive.”

He says the district had a mask mandate and social distancing requirements in the 2020-21 school year and never had to shut down schools, although it did resort to remote learning at the peak of the pandemic.

“Now we have a widely available, free vaccine and people won’t get it, not even to protect their kids who are too young,” he says. “And they don’t want to put a mask on their child to protect him and others. This is sad.”

Lessons learned

Hatfield, the Wellington superintendent, has learned that when a topic is highly politicized at all levels, it can be tough ground to navigate and can quickly become contentious.

“It is important to listen to all stakeholders,” he says. “Everyone wants our students to stay safe and healthy. It’s important to keep that in mind. Ultimately, everyone’s goal is the same; we just have different opinions on how to get there. You have to try to keep perspective in every situation and not get caught up in the noise.”

The challenge now is to keep schools open and still keep the numbers of positive cases manageable. 

He says the board’s decision to require masks, based on criteria at each school building, is a middle ground between the health department’s recommendation that everyone be masked indoors and parental and staff desires to keep kids unmasked.

“Again the ultimate goal is to keep students and staff safe. It is important from a leadership perspective to listen and stay informed so I am able to make the best decisions I can. This might include finding middle ground or sometimes just making the tough decisions. You aren’t always able to please everyone.”

Hatfield says close contact reports suggest that the mask mandate did not reduce the number of students and staff testing positive but did reduce the number of transmissions in the schools. KDHE’s Test to Stay and Learn initiative has enabled students with close contacts to miss fewer hours of classroom time.

“At the end of the day, the goal is to do what’s in the best interest of the students,” he says.

 The heat rose faster at Wellington than at any other district at the start of the school year, putting it in position to make the high-profile decision to suspend classes and regroup. Whether other districts deal with similar challenges or avoid them could depend on how much school officials and parents are able to liken their situation to Wellington’s and then take action.

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