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Mask resistance remains strong despite latest COVID-19 surge

(FILE)
(FILE)
Published: Jan. 11, 2022 at 4:26 PM CST
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WICHITA, Kan. (AP) — A Wichita school board meeting was canceled when new members refused to wear masks and elected officials in the Topeka area rejected a plea from health officials to mandate them.

Even as a surge in COVID-19 cases has strained hospitals and sent absences soaring in school districts, most of the state was plowing ahead with few if any new restrictions.

In Wichita, where the school district requires masks indoors, the three board members who refused to wear them were supposed to be ceremonially sworn in Monday evening. They were recruited to run by the Sedgwick County Republican Party as part of a nationwide effort to mobilize voters around issues such as mask mandates, mandatory vaccinations and critical race theory, The Wichita Eagle reports.

“This district cannot vote on directives, policies and protocols that we expect students, staff and visitors to abide by, all the while exempting BOE members,” said school board president Stan Reeser, as she suspended the meeting without calling it to order. “This is a message we cannot send.”

In the Topeka area, commissioners urged the public to be cautious but said they weren’t ready to require masks.

“I’m not convinced that masks are the answer to our problem,” said Commissioner Aaron Mays.

Shawnee County health officer Erin Locke had sought a monthlong mandate, telling commissioners that the community was at a “critical moment in the pandemic.”

Some elective surgeries have been canceled due to the surge, and businesses and schools are expected to see waves of employees, students and teachers becoming sick, she said.

In the Lawrence district, nearly 2,000 students have been absent from school each day since Thursday, said Superintendent Anthony Lewis on Monday during a school board meeting. Those students make up nearly one-fifth of the district’s overall enrollment, the Lawrence Journal-World reports.

More than 100 teachers also have been absent during the same time period. More than 80% of those openings have been filled with substitutes. In the other classes, principles and guidance counselors have helped out.

“This is our current reality. This is where we are,” said Lewis, who reported the information to the board remotely because he is in quarantine after testing positive for the virus.

University of Kansas Provost Barbara Bichelmeyer on Monday told faculty and staff members that classes will start “on time and in person,” with the addition of a stricter mask policy for instructors.

One of the few examples of cracking down was at Haskell Indian Nations University, which announced this week that the first three weeks will take place entirely online, the Lawrence Journal World reports.

Haskell plans to monitor the COVID-19 surge daily, and leadership will revisit the possibility of in-person courses during the first week of February.

Copyright 2022 The Associated Press. All rights reserved.