Uncovering the questions about masks

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By Jessie Wagoner


McPherson Public Schools is requiring masks for students, though a large number of residents are opposed to the policy. Many families have sought out mask exemptions for their children, prompting community members to wonder when an exemption is appropriate and when it is not. This week, we explore all things mask related in an effort to clear up some of the mask confusion. 


Who can impose a mask mandate or policy?


School boards are tasked with setting the policies around the use of masks for each district. Every school board has the autonomy to make their own decision in the best interest of the district they serve. Because of this, mask policies vary greatly from district to district. In McPherson County, the only school district currently requiring masks is USD-418, McPherson Public Schools. The other districts in the county are allowing masks to be optional at this time. 

Throughout the State of Kansas, mask policies vary widely. In the Kansas City area, the majority of districts are requiring students and staff to wear masks. However, the number of Kansas children who are getting sick with COVID, especially in districts where masks are not required, is forcing districts to reevaluate their choice. Last week, the Wellington School District actually closed until Sept. 7 because of three separate outbreaks of infections in schools where students weren’t wearing masks. McPherson County is already seeing a steady increase in cases of COVID among children. 

At any time, the state, county or city could issue a mask mandate for the area. If that were to occur, it would supersede the decisions of the school board. 


What are considered valid exemptions?


The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention says there are a few categories of people who are exempt from the requirement to wear a mask. Those who are exempt include: 

  • Children under the age of two years
  • A person with a disability who cannot wear a mask or cannot safely wear a mask for reasons related to the disability
  • A person for whom wearing a mask would create a risk to workplace health, safety or job duty as determined by a workplace risk assessment


Who can grant an exemption?


Exemptions can be granted from a licensed medical doctor or an ordained minister. However, the tricky part is determining who qualifies as an “ordained minister.” The Internal Revenue Service offers the following definition: “Ministers are individuals who are duly ordained, commissioned, or licensed by a religious body constituting a church or church denomination. Ministers have the authority to conduct religious worship, perform sacerdotal functions, and administer ordinances or sacraments according to the prescribed tenets and practices of that church or denomination. If a church or denomination ordains some ministers and licenses or commissions others, anyone licensed or commissioned must be able to perform substantially all the religious functions of an ordained minister to be treated as a minister for social security purposes.”

Depending on the denomination, there are various requirements to become ordained as a minister. However, most Christian denominations require a Master of Divinity degree from a seminary that is accredited by the Association of Theological Schools.

Gene Wilson, who is a candidate for the USD-418 Board of Education, has publicly stated he was ordained online to perform a marriage for his friend several years ago. He is now using his certificate of ordination to provide religious exemptions for families wishing to avoid the mask policy instituted by the district. Wilson stated the following on Facebook when asked about providing mask exemptions: 

“So yes, I am signing exemption forms. Yes, I am ordained. I got ordained in 2011 to marry some friends. I am helping parents with a choice to parent their child the way they see fit. I’m not preaching or passing the plate or anything like that. I’m simply helping parents help their students. I would hope if others have the opportunity to help students they would do the same. I’ve had a couple people tell me that I’m teaching kids to not respect the rules. In think I’m showing when you don’t like what elected officials decide you look for ways to stand up and peacefully fight. PEACEFULLY! As the rules are if you don’t wear a mask you don’t get to go to school, UNLESS you have an exemption. There are other exemptions out there as well, some don’t have access to those resources. I also believe there are pastors in town that would sign the form. The risk in that is there might be some in their congregations that would stop giving to the church because they feel strongly that masks should be worn. I do not have that same liability. I’m not pretending to be anything I’m not. I’m not saying I’m a dr [sic], I’m simply signing because I’m ordained. That’s it! That’s the only requirement. Again, I got my ordination in 2011, I didn’t just go out and get it for this. People get ordained all the time to marry friends and some even do so to get paid. Most people are great with that, and think that’s a good deal. If you disagree, which if you do that’s fine and I respect that but feel that I am helping people obtain a choice that was denied to them. I also feel there is a HUGE difference in being ordained and being a pastor, minister, or church leader. I have not even mentioned once, not a single time, I am running for school board to anyone asking for a form to be signed. That is 1000000% NOT why I chose to do this!”

The McPherson New-Ledger reached out to ULC Ministries, the organization Wilson is ordained through, to inquire as to if their certification of ordination is valid for issuing religious exemptions. They responded with the following: “ULC Ministries does not make available any vaccine or mask exemption letters. Furthermore, becoming ordained as a minister with ULC Ministries does not give a person the authority to create a vaccine/mask exemption letter or sign a vaccine/mask exemption letter on behalf of the Universal Life Church Ministries.” 


Are there legal repercussions for not wearing a mask?


There are currently no legal repercussions for not wearing a mask in McPherson County. There is no state, county or city mask mandate that is enforceable by law. The United States is one of the few countries that does not have a mask mandate for all citizens. Some countries, like France, England and Australia, have implemented hefty fines for residents not wearing masks. Other countries, like Qatar, have implemented prison sentences. Research has shown that countries with mask mandates have lower rates of transmission of COVID. 

We also reached out to Greg Benefiel, McPherson County Attorney, to see if there is any legal risk to individuals issuing mask exemptions when they are not needed or they are not qualified to do so. He advised the following: “Unless someone forged a physician’s note, I don’t believe there would be any criminal action possible. The consequences, if any, would likely be administrative through the school, should the school choose to pursue some sanction.”


How is the school district handling exemptions?


During the most recent school board meeting for McPherson Public Schools, Superintendent Shiloh Vincent advised there were 115 students with mask exemptions. Vincent advised the News-Ledger that exemption forms are reviewed by the administration after they are submitted by the student/family. He also advised administrators will reach out for additional follow-up or clarification on the exemption, if needed. 

If you have any additional questions about masks or the mask policy, email jessie@mcphersonweeklynews.com, and she will follow up on your questions in the coming weeks.