The Douglas County Commission on Wednesday unanimously passed an extension to the current countywide mask mandate for children.
The order requires children from ages 2 to 11 to wear masks in public spaces, with limited exceptions like eating and drinking while seated at a restaurant. It was set to expire at 11:59 p.m. on Sept. 22 and will now continue until 11:59 p.m. on Dec. 22, unless otherwise modified or rescinded.
Health officer Dr. Thomas Marcellino told commissioners that the success of local schools with minimizing outbreaks has demonstrated that keeping students who can’t yet be vaccinated in masks is effective. Although it’s uncertain how long it will be until the 2-11 age group is approved for the vaccine, he said, mask-wearing is an important part of keeping students on track this semester.
“When we initiated this order, we wanted to serve the purpose to keep our children in school,” Marcellino said. “We’ve curtailed the spread by utilizing this important measure and it’s enabled our schools to stay open.”
Several residents showed up to the courthouse to share their thoughts during public comment on the item. Many expressed their disapproval of the extension, some continuing their comments after the courthouse’s mic feed cut off at the allotted three minutes. A few residents who had attended the previous meeting regarding the mask mandate apologized for their angry behavior before, but noted that their stance had not changed.
Some opposed the masks themselves, saying that they haven’t proven to be effective and children often don’t wear them like they’re supposed to anyway. Others argued that regardless of masks, parents should be the ones to decide what precautions their children take, not the government.
“What gives you the right to make choices about our children?” one Lawrence resident asked the commission. “As a parent myself, I am responsible for my child and all I know is I will not be masking him up.”
Residents tuned in virtually as well to share opinions on the extension, with some echoing the disapproval that in-person commenters expressed. Others voiced support for the order, thanking commissioners for taking measures to protect children in the community who might not have the same platform that parents do.
“The masks in schools are very important to keep kids safe,” a Eudora teacher said. “I’ve never heard a kid complain at all about having to wear a mask. I hate wearing the mask, but that’s the only way out of this.”
Commissioners ultimately recognized the vast variety of opinions on the order throughout the community and noted that if the data that informs decisions like these changes, the decisions could change. For example, Commission Vice Chair Shannon Reid noted, necessities could change if vaccines become widely available for younger children.
“There’s obviously varied opinions and feelings across our community, and I appreciate and understand that,” Reid said. “That makes it a difficult choice for us and a difficult position to be in, to try and weigh the health of the entire community.”
Ultimately, the commission agreed keeping the order in place is necessary to protect the community — especially in the face of clusters and outbreaks in other communities throughout the state.
“What we’re doing with our public health orders is really trying to ensure that we can keep schools open and keep folks who don’t have access to the vaccine yet safe while they’re waiting for that access,” Commission Chair Shannon Portillo said.
Between the August meeting when the mask order was originally approved and this one, Commissioner Patrick Kelly acknowledged a drastic change in demeanor from those in opposition although he still heard things he was “disappointed” to hear from residents. Though he heard and understood some residents arguing that the order was an intrusion on their freedoms, he said, he also had to consider the long-term effects students could suffer if schools could not stay open.
“This has never been, for me, about the number of young people hospitalized,” he said. “It’s about keeping our schools open. I believe that there are long-term effects of students not being in school that can last their entire lifetime.”