The first day of school on Aug. 23 included hand sanitizer squirts from Brooke Thompson, a teacher at African-Centered College Preparatory Academy, 6410 Swope Parkway in Kansas City, Mo.
The first day of school on Aug. 23 included hand sanitizer squirts from Brooke Thompson, a teacher at African-Centered College Preparatory Academy, 6410 Swope Parkway in Kansas City, Mo. (Chase Castor/The Kansas City Beacon)

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School mask policies can change quickly. Check your district’s website for the most updated information. Masks are required on school buses under a federal mandate.

As students return to school in the Kansas City area, Centers for Disease Control and Prevention guidelines and a local children’s hospital recommend that they wear masks. 

But local school districts have taken a variety of approaches, in some cases shifting their plans as COVID-19 cases spiked or as city or county mandates were implemented.

Many major districts — such as those in Kansas City, Missouri; Kansas City, Kansas; Olathe; Shawnee Mission; Blue Valley; North Kansas City; and Lee’s Summit — are requiring masks, but a few area districts have made them optional. 

Here’s what you should know about kids, COVID-19 and school mask policies.

Is it safe to go back to school?

Dr. Angela Myers, infectious diseases division director at Children’s Mercy, said it is safe for students to return to school with proper precautions. 

“There’s good data that is coming out … of mitigation strategies that schools have used, that have been very effective at preventing transmission within the school,” Myers said, naming masking, distancing, cleaning and good airflow as effective precautions. 

Both CDC and the American Academy of Pediatrics guidelines recommend masking in schools for students, staff and visitors ages 2 and up regardless of vaccination status.  

These precautions are important as the delta variant has proved to be more contagious than previous versions of the virus, Myers said. 

“We’re seeing a much larger proportion of children become infected with COVID-19, in part because the virus is more contagious, but also because most children aren’t vaccinated,” she added.

In an interview with The Kansas City Beacon on Aug. 16, Myers said the hospital system had seen more than 400 positive tests in the past week and 20 children hospitalized with COVID-19, which is higher than what the hospital saw during some of the pandemic’s earlier peaks. 

There had also been an increase in children hospitalized with RSV, a respiratory virus that can be severe for young children and that typically peaks in the winter, Myers said. It is likely spreading now because children are starting to gather in group settings after being apart earlier in the pandemic. 

What if my child’s school doesn’t have a mask mandate?

In districts that say masks are optional, some parents are facing difficult decisions about whether to send their children to in-person school.

Jill Brady, whose child is 11 and starting sixth grade in the Belton School District, watched on Zoom as the school board voted to keep masks optional. She immediately decided her son would be educated virtually.

“I decided no way, I’m not sending him,” Brady said. 

There’s no simple answer for parents who are concerned about a mask-optional environment, Myers said.  

“That’s going to be a decision that the parent has to make for themselves, and they have to really assess their risk tolerance of the kid getting COVID-19, potentially, from being in school and being unmasked around other kids,” she said. 

Factors could include whether the child has underlying health conditions that could put them at greater risk, such as asthma or obesity.

Myers pointed out that children can still wear masks even if they aren’t required. 

“Parents should feel empowered to have their kid wear masks if they feel like it’s going to be helpful to prevent disease,” she said. 

But Rebecca Troyer, also a Belton parent, was not sure what to do about sending her 5-year-old autistic son to kindergarten.

She worried about how well Gavin would keep his mask on when it is optional and teachers don’t have to enforce wearing them. 

Students lined up for breakfast on the first day of school at African-Centered College Preparatory Academy. Like most KC-area school districts, Kansas City Public Schools requires masks. (Chase Castor/The Kansas City Beacon)

She would be able to keep him home for online learning, though it would be difficult to juggle with the full load of online college classes she signed up for and the work she does from home for the business she owns with her husband. 

But Troyer said some services Gavin needs didn’t work well online last year. For example, it was hard for him to hear his speech therapist over a glitchy Zoom connection. 

Gavin “regressed” during online learning, then improved when he was able to attend school in person, with masks required, she said.

“I’m so frustrated and torn,” Troyer said during an Aug. 17 interview with The Kansas City Beacon. “My kid needs to go to school because he needs those special education services.”

In a message to The Beacon Aug. 20, Troyer said the district had denied her request to enroll Gavin in online schooling and she was deciding between appealing, sending him in person, or holding him back a year.

“We decided to hold him back,” she said the following day. ”Sad the school put us in this position though. Health or education.”

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Maria Benevento is the education reporter at The Kansas City Beacon. She is a Report for America corps member. Follow her on Twitter @MariaFBenevento.