Mask mandates are slowly disappearing in Kansas counties. At a recent count, only five Kansas counties retain the mandates. However, many public school districts require students to cover their faces. In hearings across the state, parents beg school officials for relief, but their pleas are falling on deaf ears.
Recent tweaks to the Kansas Emergency Management Act, known as Senate Bill 40, require school boards to host hearings on individual requests for mask exemptions, but lawmakers who drafted the changes say in many cases, the districts disregard legislative intent in the hearing process.
“I would say the legislature’s intent was to provide due process and a fair opportunity to be heard. We are seeing that is not happening from certain local governmental bodies,” said Sen. Kellie Warren. The Republican and attorney from Leawood helped draft changes to KEMA. “It looks like the law as written and as intended is not being followed by those it was directed at.”
Lawmakers add due process to emergency management law
Lawmakers overhauled the emergency management act in March with an eye toward providing due process for anyone aggrieved by government response to any emergency, but specifically, to COVID-19. The law requires that emergency orders be narrowly tailored, and to use the least restrictive means available. It provides individuals the right to a hearing within 72 hours of filing for relief from the governmental entity imposing restrictions. The law also allows individuals to file civil suits to seek relief.
Warren said a goal of SB 40 is “to bring the political pressure to bear on the officials before they make these orders and to make them think, is something our constituents want?”
Some officials abandon mandates
Some officials admit the burden of hearings and potential lawsuits demanded easing restrictions.
“Our attorneys are telling us with no doubt that we are going to be inundated with a number of lawsuits. That’s going to clog up our courts. That’s going to clog up our legal systems,” Sedgwick County Commissioner David Dennis said as commissioners debated lifting mandates. The county eliminated its mask mandate.
School boards retaining mandates after SB 40’s passage continue to host hearings on mask mandates at the behest of aggrieved individuals. However, many parents are frustrated by the process. Lara Payton, a parent in the Mulvane School District, says the board is throwing roadblocks to prevent meaningful hearings.
“They’re just messing around,” she said. “They’re pulling all of these shenanigans.”
Schools double down on masks
Officials in the Derby School District refused to schedule a hearing for one parent saying they’d already hosted a similar hearing and reached a decision.
“It’s frustrating not to be able to be heard by the school board and to get a resolution on the issue,” said parent Mike Blankenship. “I am now forced to either accept a ruling from somebody else’s case or I’m forced to go to district court.”
Blankenship’s district court hearing is Thursday in Sedgwick County.
The law requires government entities to schedule grievance hearings within 72 hours. However, some school districts translate that to mean three business days.
“When the legislature says 72 hours, we mean 72 hours,” Warren said. “Not three business days.”
In other instances, boards appoint an attorney or district official to preside over the hearings, which is not how the law reads. It specifically says, “upon receipt of a request…the board of education shall conduct a hearing with 72 hours….”
Attorney General Derek Schmidt agrees.
“The plain text of Senate Bill 40 appears to say persons aggrieved by a local school district’s COVID policy are entitled to a hearing before the locally elected school board itself.”
Lawmakers consider tweaking KEMA in veto session
Warren also says the use of hearing officers is counter to the law’s intent. Bipartisan majorities in both chambers adopted the legislation. House members supported SB 40 118-5. The Senate adopted the measure 31-8, and the Governor signed it into law.
“Then what do we have? We have local governments thwarting the will of the people across Kansas,” she said.
Richard Ranzau, a former Sedgwick County Commissioner, is a vocal opponent of mask mandates in Sedgwick County schools. He presented evidence on behalf of aggrieved parents at a handful of school hearings in the Wichita area. He hopes lawmakers will pass a trailer bill during the legislative wrap-up session and clarify parts of SB 40.
“The legislature needs to stop this dead,” he said.