Mask mandate extended to Oct. 22

Kris Long, Print Editor-in-Chief

The USD 383 universal mask mandate was extended to at least Oct. 22 at the Board of Education meeting on Wednesday. The motion passed 5-2 with Kristin Brighton, Katrina Lewison, Curt Herman, Karla Hagemiester and Jurdene Coleman voting for the motion and Darell Edie and Brandy Santos in dissent. 

The decision to reimpose the mask mandate for the beginning of the 2021-2022 school year was originally made on Aug. 11 in a special meeting before school started, as cases began to rise again in Manhattan and across the country, and was scheduled to be revisited by Sept. 24. The Oct. 22 revisit date will function in the same way: it is not an expiry date, it is just a deadline for reconsideration.

They chose to schedule the revisit date a month out to give the board enough time to analyze trends.

“A couple of weeks is not long enough, that we really need to look at trends that a month allows us enough time to see,” superintendent Marvin Wade said. “We just need that much time to really watch what’s going on and get the feedback and inform the board of what direction we’re looking at going.”

The decision comes after an increase in COVID-19 across metrics in the district. The Riley County positivity rate has increased to 7.06% from 3.92% in the second week of school, and although Manhattan High age group incidence rates have decreased, across the country and in younger age groups the Riley County Health Department has seen an increase in cases. The number of students with cases and in quarantine have steadily increased as well from 10 students testing positive in the week of Aug. 22-28 to 15 in the week of Sept. 5-11, and from 45 to 112 quarantine in respective weeks. In terms of the coding system outlined in the Pandemic Response Plan, USD 383 is currently in the red zone.

“What we’re seeing is that the vaccination rates are not going up significantly, but the number of positive cases, things like that are going up,” Wade said. “So it’s just going the wrong direction.”

One permanent issue the board decided was that instead of the previous system in the Pandemic Response Plan which was divided into red, yellow and green, the district will simply be in and out of the red zone. This hoped to eliminate confusion on what the inbetween level meant and establish a precedent that any vaccine mandates will be universal — they will not mandate unvaccinated individuals to wear masks while vaccinated ones are not.

“[Universal mask rules] are what I heard loud and clear,” Wade said. “And that doesn’t surprise me.”

The decision was made mainly upon two factors: the first being the impossibility of enforcing a mask mandate based on vaccination status as it would require people to consistently disclose that information, and the second being a fear of causing division among students with different vaccination statuses. 

Asking people to report their vaccine status proved a contentious issue in the meeting. However, the district already has access to everyone’s vaccine information through Web IZ and uses this information to enforce quarantine standards.

Although USD 383 has access to medical records, they do not plan on enforcing a vaccine mandate now or in the future.

“I just don’t see us going that direction,” Wade said. “That would take more of a state mandate… I would have a hard time recommending that. I believe in vaccinations, but there’s that aspect where there is overreach.”