KANSAS CITY, Mo. — While most public schools in the Kansas City area require everyone to wear masks — to the relief of health officials and the consternation of some parents — several private schools are leaving masks optional, and say they are drawing more students as a result.
"Our enrollment is up again, which is obviously a huge blessing," said Janet Fogh, head of Maranatha Christian Academy in Shawnee. "Our school board made the decision to allow masks to be optional.
"So we have some students who wear masks because parents asked them to do so, and some students who don't wear masks because parents told them that's what they prefer. So parents are able to choose what's best for their children. We haven't had any issues so far. And it's been very popular."
But like in public districts, many parents are reporting COVID-19 cases at their children's private schools, and some worry that it's only a matter of time before unmasked schools are forced to close as the highly contagious delta variant afflicts children and the vaccine is not yet available for those under 12.
"It is very frustrating to know that masks and vaccines work, to know that our vaccinated population in the middle/high school groups is nowhere near where it needs to be, and to have schools not require masks," said Dr. Amy Voelker, with Preferred Pediatrics in Olathe. She has a junior at St. James Academy in Lenexa, which announced in early August it would not require masks.
"I still lose sleep knowing that she is indoors daily with hundreds of other kids who are not wearing masks," Voelker said.
"I want her to have a normal high school experience, and the only way we will get to do that is by having all students and staff vaccinated and, until that happens, universally requiring masks in school. Making masks optional puts the burden of protection on the individual kids instead of the school. This is not fair or effective in preventing spread."
Johnson County issued a health order mandating masks in private and public schools that serve students as old as sixth grade. But it does not have a countywide mandate. Jackson County, Kansas City and most of Wyandotte County require masks for everyone indoors. (Clay and Platte counties make masks optional.)
But some private schools are opting out of such orders, saying they have limited home rule authority to do so.
Last school year, as COVID-19 cases were surging, Maranatha was among the first in the region to bring students back to classrooms, while public schools stayed remote. The Christian school saw a boost in enrollment that is continuing this year.
Fogh said the decision on masks was "certainly part of many parents' thought processes" as they enrolled their children this summer.
She said 424 students were enrolled as of last week, up from 404 last year, and 321 the year before. The school also is implementing three feet of social distance when possible and continually cleaning and disinfecting, she said.
"We're thankful and appreciative for the option to wear masks or not wear masks. Things have started off extremely well with normal activities. ... Sports are in session. We're planning homecoming. Instead of asking, 'can we do it,' we're assuming we can. And I love that because that means in (our) minds, things are back to normal," Fogh said.
"We don't know what the future holds but we're trying to do our best to keep our kids safe."
Catholic diocese school officials on both sides of the state line say they are leaving it up to individual schools to decide on COVID-19 protocols. Most, but not all, require masks.
As the delta variant drives up new COVID-19 cases, health officials have warned that classrooms of unmasked children will cause outbreaks and possible school closures. Some public and private schools have already seen the consequences of bringing back hundreds of unvaccinated and unmasked students.
The Wellington school district in south-central Kansas, which made masks optional, suspended all school-related activities until Sept. 7 because of COVID-19 outbreaks, less than two weeks into the school year. In the Kansas City area, both the Turner and Raymore-Peculiar districts implemented mask mandates after growing numbers of students and staff were exposed to the virus and quarantined.
In Johnson County, the Gardner Edgerton district had required only younger students to wear masks. But after one week of school and roughly 50 COVID cases, the school board extended the mandate to all grade levels. Before the new rule took effect Monday, 234 middle schoolers were required to quarantine last week, after 15 cases were reported.
Private schools throughout the region vary on their COVID-19 protocols.
On the Missouri side, about 80% of the 33 schools in the Diocese of Kansas City-St. Joseph are requiring masks of all staff, visitors and students, said Karen Kroh, superintendent of schools.
"Recognizing that the diocese has schools in urban, suburban and rural settings with different municipal and county health department guidelines, the diocese has left the decision whether or not to require masks up to each pastor and principal," Kroh said in an email to The Star.
On the Kansas side, strategies differ depending on health orders and case trends in each school community, said Vince Cascone, superintendent of schools for the Archdiocese of Kansas City in Kansas.
"You could have a school in a rural area that really is not having any cases of COVID-19 in the area, and they're going to handle it differently than maybe Wyandotte County, where the vaccination rate is lower," Cascone said.
He said in Johnson County, students in younger grades must wear masks, per the county health order, although rules on exemptions differ, with parents allowed to opt out in some schools.
In Kansas City, which has an indoor mask mandate for public spaces, some private schools like Pembroke Hill and Rockhurst High School, a Jesuit school, have universal mask mandates, following health officials' guidance.
Rockhurst is separating students by at least three feet throughout the day, and six feet during lunch. Rapid COVID-19 tests are available upon request for students and staff. Frequent hand-washing is encouraged, and most rooms have hand-sanitizing stations, said spokesman Robbie Haden.
In Overland Park, the Hyman Brand Hebrew Academy is going beyond the Johnson County health order to mandate that all staff and students in all grade levels wear masks, said Adam Tilove, the head of school. All public districts in Johnson County, except for the Spring Hill district, do the same.
"I am not an epidemiologist. I have a COVID task force full of doctors and none of them are epidemiologists. Johnson County has its own epidemiologist. We have our own health department right here," Tilove said. "So I'm going to do exactly what they say are the best policies. I don't want to be more conservative than them or more lenient than them. As soon as I deviate from that, then I'm saying I'm smarter than the epidemiologists. And that's not my job."
While Johnson County has only mandated masks for younger students, health officials have been clear that masks are needed for all grade levels to prevent outbreaks and mass quarantines.
Both the American Academy of Pediatrics and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention recommend universal masking indoors for grades K-12. They agree that masks, along with social distancing, sanitizing and regular testing, help prevent the spread of COVID-19.
Tilove said school leaders have faced their share of criticism for the decision. He said one mother called him angry about the mask mandate and started spouting antisemitic and hateful remarks.
Cascone of the Kansas archdiocese said some schools have allowed parents to sign off on mask exemption forms, without doctor approval, essentially leaving mask-wearing a choice for parents to make.
The Spring Hill school district did the same. Before the vote, school board member Ali Seeling, who pushed for the change, pointed to some private schools that had allowed parents to opt out of mask mandates.
While many who are against mask mandates have celebrated the decisions, others have voiced concerns that parents could sign the forms without their children having a relevant medical condition. In Spring Hill, nearly 17% of the district's kindergarten through eighth grade students are exempt from wearing masks.
Cascone said the majority of the archdiocese's 42 schools are requiring a medical doctor or mental health professional to sign off on exemptions, but it depends on the trend in new cases in the school's community.
"There are some situations where parents were allowed to do exemptions, but as we've seen cases creep up in the area, principals and pastors have been making those exemptions a little bit more focused on medical doctors having to issue them," he said.
Without universal masking, health officials have warned that more students and staff will be pulled out of school after a COVID-19 exposure.
Cascone hopes that rapid COVID-19 testing for students and staff will help avoid mass quarantines. He said there are about 130,000 rapid tests available throughout all of the schools.
"So if somebody does come into close contact with someone with COVID, we can let those other students remain in school as long as possible, as long as we can tell they're safe and don't have COVID," he said.
The archdiocese is waiting on final enrollment numbers for this fall, but Cascone said "anecdotally, we're definitely hearing stories of increased enrollment."
"I think people have seen that we're a great option," he said. "We offer a great opportunity for families to be part of a community that values what the parents want for their children."