By Lucas Lord
Students and staff attending Harrisonville schools will continue to mask for at least another 30 days as the school board approved extended COVID-19 protocols and approved revisions to the Safe Return to School Plan during its Oct. 19 meeting.
Superintendent Paul Mensching outlined the current status of the Safe Return to School Plan, proposing additional testing measures as an alternative to the mandatory 14-day quarantine that students with secondary exposure to COVID previously had to undertake.
“I just want to reiterate that we aren’t the ones who quarantine students, that would be the health department,” Mensching said. “We do contact tracing. We did go back and ask staff again and had 108 staff in favor of masking and 96 that were against masking.”
Mensching offered a new option which has been approved by the Department of Elementary and Secondary Education all the Test to Stay option.
Under the new guidelines, students who are in close contact with someone who has tested positive may choose to submit three negative tests in lieu of virtual learning during the normally 14-day mandated quarantine period. Students engaged in extra-curriculars will have to test negative daily to participate during that same timeframe.
“For me, I am pretty much a single mom during the year. I can’t afford to have my kids be quarantined multiple times,” said Britney Seton. “I was out eight weeks last year with my three kids. I’m masking my kids, but you aren’t masking your kids so then that means my kid has to suffer and be out of school for two weeks.”
The board voted 4-3 to establish the new plan. Voting in favor of the changes were Sexton, Tina Graef, Nancy Shelton and Doug Alexander. Opposed were Bing Schimmelpfenning, Doug Meyer and Cameron Chenoweth.
Prior to the discussion, four community members addressed the board, all against masking for students.
Rebecca Cunningham, who has children in the district, opened remarks saying, “Statistically, the virus poses almost zero threat ot children. At this point, germs on the mask pose a more serious threat.”
Jennifer George, a parent as well, also spoke out against the mask mandate.
“While I know that some of you believe it protects people, that is not your place. You are the board of education not the health department,” George said. “You have gone beyond the health department’s recommendations and mandated the placement of a medical device on our children. These mask mandates violate fundamental individual freedoms that are protected by the federal and states’ constitutions, informed consent and due process.”
Robert Wynder said the district-wide employee surveys were undermined by the lack of participation.
“There was a survey sent out to all the teachers to get their recommendations as to what we should do. I guess I take issue with that because you are letting the teachers make the decision when more than 100 of them didn’t even respond back, probably over fear of what would happen if they did,” Wynder said. “I am here asking for something I never thought I would have to ask: to allow us parents to make the decision for our kids as to whether they should have to wear a mask or not.”
While Wynder acknowledged the role of Gov. Mike Parsons continues to play in mask mandates, her urged the board not to tack on additional COVID protocols.
“I see a lot of people here tonight and even in the district that voted for the mask mandated, but don’t even wear them out in public.”
The last member of the public to speak was Katarina Manniho.
“One of our children had a speech impendent in first grade. My husband and I, nor his mother or stepdad, didn’t even notice it because of how mild it was,” Manniho said. “The teacher was able to hear it and recommend that he participate in speech therapy offered through the district. Thanks to this early intervention he is now in high school with no speech problems. Kids like him may have speech impediments go undiagnosed because of their masking and how it muffles their speech.”
The board will revisit the Safe Return to School Plan and its mask mandate again at the next board meeting Nov. 17.
Other than COVID protocols, the board also discussed the district’s audit overseen by Mandy Caullen of Westbrook and Company. Other than some mislabeled ledgers and some bus routes operating outside the district’s authority, the audit did not reveal any major reporting failures.
Brandon Staley of Newkirk Novak discussed the progress of the first phase of the school construction, telling the board that only finishing touches were left at the Early Childhood Center and some structural framing for the multipurpose spaces at the high school and Cass Career Center. Staley reported no major setbacks to construction efforts.
Director of Curriculum and Instruction Kristi Meeks presented student assessment data, though much of it was skewed by a year where no testing occurred, according to Meeks.
“Remember, we can’t go back too far because the state loves changing standards and we had a pandemic where we didn’t even test, so I went back to 2019 and compared it to where we are now,” Meeks said.
Overall, more grades were above the state average than they were in 2019, especially in reading and science.