USD 232 in De Soto makes masks optional in high schools, starting Wednesday

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Students at Mill Valley and De Soto high schools in USD 232 will no longer be required to wear masks starting Wednesday, Oct. 20, but that policy change will remain in effect only if the district’s student quarantine and isolation numbers remain low.

After about an hour of discussion on Monday night, the school board unanimously approved making masks in grades 9-12 optional.

What the optional mask policy will look like

Here are the specifics for the optional mask policy in USD 232’s two high schools:

  • If the weekly percentage of recommended quarantines and isolations is below 4% of a building’s student enrollment, then the optional mask policy will remain in place.
  • If the weekly percentage of recommended quarantines and isolations is greater than 4% of a building’s student enrollment, then face masks will once again be required, as they are in the district’s middle and elementary school buildings.
  • If the percentage of recommended quarantines and isolations is less than 2% for two consecutive weeks, then the optional mask policy will be reinstated.
  • Masks will still be required for all students and staff on buses and other district-provided transportation, per the ongoing federal transportation mask mandate.
  • Masks will still be required at Cedar Trails Exploration Center if one high school reinstates the mask requirement, to avoid transmission of the coronavirus to the other high school.
  • The optional mask policy also applies to staff and visitors at the high schools.

“We all know … there’s not a solution that works for everybody,” said board member Ashley Spaulding. “We do know that a move like this is going to be troublesome to some people and met with a great deal of satisfaction from others, and so there’s not an option that does please everybody.”

Superintendent Frank Harwood said having metrics in place will allow a flexible approach for the district in reinstating or lifting mask requirements at the high schools.

Superintendent Frank Harwood said having metrics in place will allow the district the flexibility to reinstate a mandatory mask policy at the high schools — without school board input — should either of them have an uptick in COVID-19 cases.

“So if we do have an outbreak and it starts to spread, we will see those numbers and masks could be required without the need to call a special board meeting to put that back in place,” Harwood said.

With the policy going into effect Wednesday, the district will probably start collecting and reporting COVID-19 case data across school buildings on Fridays instead of Wednesdays, in order to give school administrators time to announce on Fridays any changes to the mask policy for the next week.

Monday’s meeting was not open for public comment. About a dozen people were in attendance.

Why the switch for high schools

So far, student exclusions based on the Johnson County Department of Health and Environment’s recommendations for quarantine and isolation have averaged less than 1% each week, Harwood added.

Average daily attendance is also about 96%.

The school board exclusively focused the change to the district’s universal mask policy on high schools because children 12 and older are eligible to receive the COVID-19 vaccine.

The school board’s decision also comes as COVID-19 case trends in Johnson County are falling.

The Johnson County Department of Health and Environment recently downgraded the “community risk” metric in the county from “High” to “Substantial,” with the current incidence rate sitting at 91 per 100,000 residents. The county’s percent positivity rate is just under 5%.\

Both those countywide metrics are the lowest they’ve been since this summer before a surge in cases driven by the Delta variant.

What about elementary and middle schools?

Masks are still required in elementary and middle school buildings.

The school board briefly discussed moving to an optional mask policy or creating some other solutions for elementary and middle school students.

However, the board ultimately opted for a gradual approach to lifting mask mandates districtwide, starting with high schools.

About the author

Leah Wankum
Leah Wankum

Hi there! I’m Leah Wankum, and I’m the Post’s Deputy Editor. I’m thrilled to call Johnson County home, and I’m deeply committed to the Post’s philosophy that an informed community is a strong community.

I’m a native of mid-Missouri, and attended high school in Jefferson City before going on to the University of Central Missouri, where I earned a master’s degree in mass communication.

Prior to joining the Post as a reporter in 2018, I was the editor of the Richmond News in Ray County, Missouri. I’ve also written for several publications, including the Sedalia Democrat and KC Magazine.