State education commissioner advises Kansas schools to let health departments make decisions on closures

photo by: Peter Hancock/Journal-World File Photo

This file photo from Jan. 6, 2017, shows Kansas Education Commissioner Randy Watson in his office.

As Kansas’ public universities prepare to shut down their campuses in light of the growing coronavirus pandemic, the state’s K-12 education leader said school districts must look to their local health departments for guidance on possible closures.

State Education Commissioner Randy Watson told hundreds of Kansas school leaders during a video conference call on Thursday that their local health departments and the Kansas Department of Health and Environment have the authority to close schools.

But Watson made it clear that the Kansas State Department of Education and the state’s board of education did not have that authority.

“Your local or county health department has the authority to issue a closure if you have a confirmed case of COVID-19 in your school,” he said, noting KDHE and the governor could as well. “That will not come from us.”

“That’s very, very important: Health officials … will make the best decisions for us when the time is (needed),” he later added. “That’s what we need to rely on. I don’t think any of us should be making decisions that health professionals ought to be making.”

Watson also provided the school leaders with guidance if a health department chooses to close a school. He said the schools have three options to make up time students have missed school. The state requires all students to attend school for a certain number of hours each school year.

The three options are:

• Make up the time any way the school wants, such as extending the school year, until June 30, 2020. Watson said this option was always available to schools and continued to be available.

• Submit a proposal to make up the time through online education options. However, Watson said the requirements attached to such an option were similar to a brick-and-mortar school and would likely be difficult for most Kansas schools to meet.

• Submit a request to KSDE to waive the amount of time required by state statute. Watson said the state board granted Watson the authority to grant such requests.

Watson said it would be difficult for K-12 schools to move to an online education option because they have to meet certain state and federal requirements, such as providing certain services to students with disabilities.

“It’s not easy for (universities), but it is easier for them to go to an online environment than it is for a K-12 environment,” he said.

Watson said KDHE was suggesting that a school be closed for 14 calendar days if a closure were needed. After that period, health departments would need to clear the building for reopening.

But Deputy Commissioner Dale Dennis said local health departments may be able to disinfect and reopen schools in a shorter time span. He said it was possible a closure could last only three to five days.

“But that’s up to the health department; they have to decide that,” Dennis said.

Additionally, Watson told the school leaders to request that their students returning from international travel meet with their local health departments. He said they may have students take precautions to minimize spread. However, he again made it clear that the school district and the state’s education department would not make health decisions for them. He said the school districts did not have the authority to quarantine students.

Watson said the situation was changing rapidly and told the school districts to constantly be on the lookout for changing guidance through KDHE. Additionally, he told the school leaders that they must be “vigilant” as the pandemic progresses.

“All of you need to exert really good leadership in your communities,” Watson said. “Panic is running too rampant across the United States, across our state and in schools. This is the time to be vigilant and not be panicked. That is a fine line.”

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