Pediatrician to Kansas schools: Don’t give in to stupid lies about masks

By: - November 11, 2021 9:29 am

Clockwise from top left, Jennifer Bacani McKenney, Wilson County health officer; Randy Watson, Kansas education commissioner; retired pediatrician Vernon Mills; and Kimber Kasitz, director of health services for Wichita schools, discuss the importance of staying the course with masking in schools during a meeting Wednesday of the Safer Classrooms Workgroup. (Screen Capture from YouTube by Kansas Reflector)

TOPEKA — Vernon Mills has a strong message for school officials who are tired of fighting with angry community members over the benefits of making students and staff wear face coverings.

The retired pediatrician from Leavenworth, speaking during a meeting Wednesday of health care providers and school officials, said a retreat from mask mandates in schools plays into the hands of people who propagate lies about COVID-19 and health safety protocols.

“And the answer is, that’s stupid,” Mills said. “Now, I’ll just call it that. It’s as stupid as you can possibly be. To see people still dying, case loads still going on everywhere. … You can see this hasn’t gone anywhere, and will not go anywhere, until people really start to vaccinate and do a better job of the things they’re supposed to, like wearing a mask.”

Marci Nielsen, chief COVID-19 adviser for Gov. Laura Kelly’s administration, told members of the Safer Classrooms Workgroup there are 46 active outbreaks at Kansas schools, down from 54 a week ago. Schools that that require masks reported infections at a rate of 33 per 100,000 students. The infection rate was more than eight times higher at schools that don’t require a mask — 269 per 100,000 students.

Randy Watson, Kansas education commissioner, described the conversations school leaders are having with him. They tell him they require masks to prevent illness from spreading in their schools and their communities, but then no one else in the city or county wears a mask.

What good does it do for the community, they ask, if students are wearing a mask at school for six hours, but not at restaurants, sporting events, concerts or other places?

Schools, Watson said, are “becoming weary of the fight.”

“What I’m saying is, you may start to see the masking numbers drop, which isn’t a very effective strategy in schools of containing a number of kids that don’t have to be out of school and obviously don’t have to be hospitalized and have any severe complications,” Watson said.

Mills said it’s important to stay the course.

Members of the workgroup are supposed to be the experts, the ones with the knowledge and experience to know what to do.

This isn’t easy, Mills said. It’s going to be difficult.

“If we don’t stay on that line and protect what we know is right, the truth, and how this is supposed to be handled, then all it does is make it easier for more people to not do what they’re supposed to do,” Mills said. “So I understand fatigue, but I also understand that what we need to do is do what’s right.”

It’s OK to feel pressure, Mills said. It’s OK to understand that other people are not happy.

You don’t get up and give a bottle to a 9-month-old just because he doesn’t want to sleep at night, Mills said. You have to draw a line somewhere.

“We need to just tell the truth, keep telling the truth, keep telling the truth and keep telling the truth until they get fatigued,” Mills said. “Because if we give up or give in, then the lie becomes the truth, or people believe what they want. That’s my point.”

Kimber Kasitz, director of health services for Wichita schools, pointed to the “drastic decrease” in infections in her district after a mask mandate was introduced.

“I understand that there is a little bit of a fatigue from this,” Kasitz said. “However, we all know the science shows, the data shows, that it does make a difference in protecting others when you have a mask on.”

Jennifer Bacani McKenney, Wilson County health officer, said people should think of the pandemic as a chronic illness. We all want a quick fix, she said, but that isn’t going to happen.

“Nobody promised us an easy pandemic, right?” McKenney said. “And nobody promised us a quick one, either. Our only hope is that there’s an end, and you don’t know when that’s going to be at this point.”

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Sherman Smith
Sherman Smith

Sherman Smith is the editor in chief of Kansas Reflector. He writes about things that powerful people don't want you to know. A two-time Kansas Press Association journalist of the year, his award-winning reporting includes stories about education, technology, foster care, voting, COVID-19, sex abuse, and access to reproductive health care. Before founding Kansas Reflector in 2020, he spent 16 years at the Topeka Capital-Journal. He graduated from Emporia State University in 2004, back when the school still valued English and journalism. He was raised in the country at the end of a dead end road in Lyon County.