Jackson County to vote on requiring masks in schools

Mike Genet

Jackson County Executive Frank White Jr. is recommending a mask requirement for public schools in the county, though such a public health order would need approval by the Jackson County Legislature. It’s on Tuesday’s Legislature agenda. 

Three legislators are sponsoring the ordinance on agenda – Scott Burnett, Jalen Anderson and Crystal Williams – so it's unclear if it will pass, as a majority of legislators voted last November to end the county mask mandate before it had been scheduled to expire. 

White's office says the recommendation for kindergarten through high school comes in consultation with County Health Department Acting Director Ray Dlugolecki and also aligns with Centers for Disease Control and Prevention recommendations, given the ongoing surge of COVID-19 cases and hospitalizations and the desire to keep students in school 

According to the Health Department, the Eastern Jackson County's case rate for the first full week of January was 1,101 per 100,000 people, an increase of about 250 percent from just four weeks earlier, the highest point in the pandemic, and more than 10 times the CDC standard for high transmission. The seven-day positive test percentage was at 35.5 percent this week, far above the high-transmission standard of 10 percent. 

And while vaccination rates have only trickled upward for months in the county, the COVID-19 case rate for unvaccinated people over the past two weeks was 1.9 and 2.6 times the rate of those fully vaccinated and boosted, according to the Health Department.  

While the omicron variant that appears to be dominant in the area is generally milder than previous COVID-19 strains, the sheer number of cases means more hospitalizations. Compounded with staffing shortages, the surge has severely strained the capacity of area hospitals. 

At a media briefing this week, Children's Mercy Hospital emergency director Jennifer Watts said the hospital had a pandemic-high 34 children hospitalized with COVID-19. 

“I think it does certainly help,” Watts said of wearing masks. “We know as pediatricians that a vital piece to pediatric well-being is for the kids to stay in school.” 

The Blue Springs, Fort Osage and Grain Valley school districts had mask mandates to start the school year, following with the county's mandate at the time. The city of Independence, which has its own health department, did not enact a mask mandate, but the Independence School District required masks until the end of 2021, as some district schools are outside the city limits. 

The Blue Springs and Fort Osage districts also have buildings in Independence. 

The Kansas City Council earlier this month voted to require masks in public schools in the city limits. 

“We know how valuable in-person learning is for students, but maintaining that practice is becoming increasingly difficult as schools struggle to have enough teachers in the classroom and more children are getting sick at an alarming rate,” White said in a release. “Masking has proven to be an effective way to mitigate the spread of the virus and will help keep students, teachers, staff and visitors safe in school buildings.”