Kansas state school board approves guidelines for school reopenings ahead of governor’s announcement

photo by: Associated Press

Kansas Education Commissioner Randy Watson reviews material on his laptop during a break in a State Board of Education meeting, Tuesday, July 14, 2020, in Topeka, Kansas. The board has installed plexiglass screens on its meeting table to separate members during its meetings because of the coronavirus pandemic. (AP Photo/John Hanna)

UPDATED STORY:

Kansas governor says she’ll delay reopening of K-12 schools until after Labor Day

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Original story:

TOPEKA — Kansas’ state school board on Wednesday approved guidelines aimed at helping K-12 schools reopen safely next month, even as members wondered whether districts have enough time to prepare and if teachers even want to return during the coronavirus pandemic.

The State Board of Education’s guidelines call for teachers and staff to wear masks inside and suggests all students be told to wear them if they’re in middle or high school. It recommends hourly hand-washing, daily temperature checks for all staff, and limiting visitors and the movement of students. The guidelines also say all students should be observed daily for signs of illness.

Approval of the guidelines comes after a spike in reported coronavirus cases deemed “awful” by Dr. Lee Norman, the head of the Kansas Department of Health and Environment. His agency reported Wednesday that Kansas has confirmed 20,993 cases, up 935 or 4.8%, since Monday. The number of reported COVID-19-related deaths jumped by 11 to 299.

Kansas has reported an average of 482 new cases a day over the past seven days — its worst seven-day average during the pandemic. The number of reported cases in Kansas has grown by 40% in two weeks, with 6,003 new cases confirmed.

The State Board of Education’s roughly 1,100 pages of recommendations came from a task force and cover not only issues such as masks but others dealing with instruction and measuring students’ progress when some classes are online. Local school boards can adopt them in whole, in part, or not at all, and can decide when and how to reopen their buildings.

“We make no blanket orders because, as this document demonstrates, there is no one, best answer for all districts,” said state board member Ann Mah, a Topeka Democrat. “Every district out there can delay their opening to prepare adequately.”

photo by: Associated Press

Kansas State Board of Education member Ann Mah, D-Topeka, follows a presentation on proposed guidelines for reopening the state’s K-12 schools as planned during the coronavirus pandemic, Wednesday, July 15, 2020, in Topeka, Kan. (AP Photo/John Hanna)

Democratic Gov. Laura Kelly ordered all K-12 buildings closed in mid-March for the rest of the spring semester to check the spread of coronavirus, and received some criticism from the Republican-controlled Legislature for acting so quickly. Kelly still has the authority to close schools, but a law enacted last month requires the State Board of Education to sign off.

Kelly has scheduled a Wednesday afternoon news conference to discuss reopening schools for the state’s 519,000 public K-12 students. They typically begin fall classes by mid-August.

Mah said the board has received a flood of emails from concerned teachers.

“They are scared to go back to school, and I don’t blame them,” Mah said.

Board member Jim McNiece, described the guidelines as potentially “daunting” to put into effect.

“There’s a lot of to-dos in this,” he said. “A lot of teachers and staff members and facilitators are not ready.”

Educators and state and local officials said students benefit from interacting with other students and that in-person instruction generally is better than online instruction, particularly for students with special needs.

State board Chairwoman Kathy Busch, a Wichita Republican, said in terms of reopening issues: “We can’t imagine probably anybody who hasn’t already been starting to work on these .”

Dr. Steve Stites, chief medical officer at the University of Kansas Health System, said data on coronavirus cases suggests that middle and high school students would be more likely to spread the virus than elementary school students. But the virus’ spread is checked with masks, social distancing and frequent hand-washing, he said.

“It’s all about our devotion — I chose that word very carefully, our ‘devotion’ — to keeping each other safe,” Stites said during a Zoom news conference Wednesday.

Kansas lifted statewide restrictions on businesses and public gatherings on May 26 and has seen its number of reported coronavirus cases more than double since then. Public health officials have blamed the spikes on people becoming more lax about public gatherings and in bars and restaurants.

“We have fumbled the ball, people, and that’s the bottom line,” Norman said. “Mass gatherings are evil — and I don’t care what kind of gatherings they are.”

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