Cherokee County drops mask mandate, Columbus schools loosen mask requirements

Columbus school board to review policy during February meeting.


CHEROKEE COUNTY, Kan. – On Monday, January 11th, commissioners in Cherokee County voted to end the county wide mask mandate.

Prompting a similar change in Columbus schools.

“Our plan follows what the county does, so that took off the required mask mandate,” explains Columbus School District Superintendent Brian Smith. “Our board, and a lot of people, believe in local control. So they wanted to follow what the county health (board) said. And really, the commissioners are advised by the county health department. So I think if county health thought it was bad to not have a mask mandate, they would have stepped in.”

On November 23rd, the Cherokee County Commission allowed Governor Laura Kelly’s state wide mask mandate to go into effect. Meaning that anyone in Cherokee County who was inside a building or couldn’t social distance was required to wear a mask.

Commissioner Cory Moates says they made the decision in November to adopt the mandate because a large number of people wanted them to adopt the mandate. And this recent change is fueled by community feedback in the same way, just from people who don’t want the mandate.

Commission Lorie Johnson, who was sworn in on Monday to replace outgoing commissioner Neal Anderson, says the same. But adds in a phone conversation that the county’s numbers were increasing after the mandate was put into place, saying “mandates aren’t working.” Johnson declined the opportunity to do an on camera interview on the subject.

County Public Information Officer David Groves says the number of positive cases in Cherokee County have consistently increased.

“Part of that mandate, while it does mandate the wearing of masks, there’s no enforcement component. It was a civil action if people weren’t compliant, but there was no criminal component to it. So people, if they chose to wear masks, they did. If they chose not to, they didn’t. And there were numerous exclusions to where a person could be exempt from wearing it anyway,” says Groves.

According to the Cherokee County Health Department, there was 188 active positive cases and 1070 total documented cases on November 23rd, the day the commission let the mask mandate take effect.

On December 23rd, a month later, there were 179 active positive cases, and 1604 total documented cases.

On January 12th, which is the most recent data available from the county, there had been 1,959 total documented cases. The local briefing for the 12th did not include the current number of active cases, and KDHE does not have that number on their website.

Groves says that it is possible that the increase in cases can be attributed to the holidays at the end of the year.

“Cherokee County health officials continue to encourage residents to do the things that they’ve been saying from the onset,” says Groves. “Regardless of what any government mandates or doesn’t mandate, those are just good practices to help prevent the spread of any infectious disease.”

When it comes to students and staff in the Columbus School District, they no longer are required to wear masks inside of buildings in the district. But, they will have to wear them on busses and in school vehicles.

“We’ve always required masks on a school bus or in a school vehicle because those are very contained areas,” says Smith. “And as you remember, some people were disappointed in us because we did reduce the number of students riding the buses, and kept it to one student per seat.”

Smith says they will continue to follow all of the other safety protocols they’ve adopted, and have been following since schools opened again in the spring.

He also says the change isn’t a big one for students or parents in the district, since they are “just going back to what they did for the majority of the fall semester.” Smith explains there hasn’t been a requirement for students or staff to wear masks inside of buildings in the district aside from when the county mask mandate was in place.

“It seems like we were averaging about one (new case) a week over time. And as I said, we would isolate them pretty quickly. And the parents have been great with that, keeping all the students in the family home until we could figure it out,” says Smith.

Smith explains that the district hasn’t had any cases of in-school transmission, where a student has tested positive and spread the virus to other students or staff within the school.

There are currently 3 students and 4 staff members who are considered active positive cases. During the entire school year, there’s been 36 students and 26 staff members test positive, out of the approximate 900 students and 150 staff within the district.

“We actually had more (active cases) during the mask mandate, but I suspect it was because of the holidays,” explains Smith. “None of our close contacts have come down with the virus, so I think that says the things that we’re doing are working.”

The area they’ve had the most cases has been at the high school, where 23 students have tested positive.

“Students feel pretty invincible at that age. So, we can do all the safety precautions we want inside the school day, and then four or five of them will go hop in a car with their windows up and no masks on. Where in the school we have them separated, we try to open windows, we actually have air sanitizing systems that we put in because of this. We take their temperatures whenever they enter the building, we have hand sanitizer,” says Smith. “I mean, we have all kinds of protections in place, but when they walk out that school door at the end of the day, a lot of that goes out the window sometimes.”

There’s been 12 students test positive at Central Junior High School, 1 student at Highland Elementary, and no students at Parke Elementary since the begging of the school year.

“From the onset, the schools have been really tremendous in helping to ensure the health and safety of their staff and students,” says Groves.

Smith says since the county commission decided to end the county wide mask mandate, if gives the district the ability to look at their policy again and figure out a system that works for each individual school, if that’s something the board feels they need to do. He says the school board plans to have that discussion at their next meeting on February 8th.

“But, I hope before that occurs, we’ll have vaccine available for our staff,” says Smith. “The county has already started talking about getting on lists, and we have a list of teachers and well over half our staff has signed up to take the vaccine. And that will be a big relief for me personally to know that they’ve had that opportunity to have that protection.”

Smith says he expects coronavirus vaccines to be available to staff in the next three weeks or so.

Just like most times a mask mandate has been discussed in the four-states, residents have differing opinions on the subject.

Several Columbus residents we spoke to say they’re happy that the commission voted to end the mandate — with many saying they’ll wear a mask when they need to, but think it should be a personal choice.

But others, like resident Gary Pruitt, are disappointed in the decision.

“I think we should all wear masks,” says Pruitt. “With my health and a lot of people around here that can’t go and get the vaccinations yet, they need to wear masks.”

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