Mask mandates ends with support of medical advisory


Kris Long, Print Editor-in-Chief

Manhattan High students entered East and West campuses with masks optional for the first time in over a year on Monday, sparking a debate between safety and personal liberty. 

For most of the pandemic, those who preferred the more cautious route were on the side of medical professionals. However, this decision was different. On the advice of the Medical Advisory Board, The USD 383 school board voted to remove the mask mandate for MHS only.

“As you know, we have been vocal advocates of all measures that promote public, community, and USD staff/student health throughout this pandemic,” wrote the Medical Advisory Board — which includes local medical professionals Ryan Knopp, Segan Chase, Kyle Goerl, Kate Dove and James Lehman —  in the justification of the decision. “But we cannot continue all mitigation measures forever…. The end-game is not zero COVID. The physicians on the Medical Advisory committee promised USD 383 staff, students, parents, and community members that if all important variables and metrics allowed for a reduction in mitigation measures, we would support that move.”

The board listed 12 reasons behind their decision based on timing and medical advances. Their explanation behind the time is that currently the Delta wave is receding, the strain on healthcare systems has been reduced, local COVID-19 metrics are on the decline, a phased approach starting with the high school is a safe way to approach going back to normal and a compromise with both sides, and that this three weeks is a good test run before the holidays. The medical advances they listed included that not all schools who removed their mandates have had outbreaks, all USD 383 schools now have access to rapid tests, all students and staff at the high school have had the opportunity to get vaccinated and staff are eligible for the booster shot and treatments for COVID-19 have greatly progressed in their effectiveness since the beginning of the pandemic. 

The medical endorsement of rolling back masks as a mitigation measure has caused those who previously supported them unequivocally to take pause. The previous 5-2 majority support for mask mandates on the school board flipped to 1-6, and of the current liberal candidates for school board — Jayme Morris-Hardeman, Karla Hagemiester and Teresa Parks — two of the three, Morris-Hardeman and Parks, support keeping the mandate despite the go-ahead from the Medical Board to remove it.

“Two months ago I would have said [remove the mask mandate] when the Medical Advisory Board thinks it’s time,” board member Kristen Brighton, who voted against the motion, said. “Well in this case, they supported the plan… It’s just, when I think about last year after Halloween and Thanksgiving and Christmas, that’s when we had our big spike. I just don’t feel comfortable yet. I’m talking to my own kids who are high school students, they do not feel like their education is being harmed in any way. And I don’t see any reason why we just don’t stick with this pathway.”

Another board member, Curt Herman, who previously supported the mandates on the basis of the Medical Advisory Board’s suggestion, felt he could not override the recommendation of medical professionals. 

“I think I’ve been consistent throughout the whole of COVID that I really rely on the advice of our medical team,” Herman said at the meeting on Oct. 20. “And they all are supportive of this. So I feel like I really need to support this.”

The advisory board’s decision was not that it is completely safe to remove the mask mandate, but that the risk reward factor at this point means it is not appropriate to mandate masks. The decision is likely to cause an increase in infections and quarantines — as did the decision to go back to five-day-a-week school — but the uptick should be manageable.  

“If we as physicians were to address the current situation through the narrow lens of ‘how can we literally prevent the most cases of COVID we can?’ — well, then of course we would support ongoing mask mandates, encourage distancing and isolation, and all of that indefinitely (along with vaccinations most importantly, of course),” wrote the board in their justification. “But should we mandate those precautions forever? No. That would lead to further polarization, fragmentation, and loss of trust of the medical community.”