Kansas governor orders K-12 school buildings closed for remainder of school year

photo by: Associated Press

Kansas Gov. Laura Kelly answers questions from reporters, Tuesday, March 17, 2020, at the Statehouse in Topeka, Kan. (AP Photo/John Hanna)

Story updated at 10:50 p.m. Tuesday

Gov. Laura Kelly on Tuesday closed Kansas’ public and private K-12 schools for the rest of the spring semester, moving education online throughout the state to try to lessen the spread of the new coronavirus.

Kelly also said that starting Monday, most of the 18,000 state workers under her supervision will be directed to stay at home for two weeks so that agencies can plan for having some continue working from home and placing others on paid administrative leave. She acknowledged that Kansans may see deadlines extended for such things as renewing driver’s or professional licenses.

It was the governor’s strongest response yet to the coronavirus pandemic, coming a day after she banned public gatherings of 50 or more people throughout the state, only to see federal officials recommend no gatherings of more than 10. Her move to close the schools had the support of Education Commissioner Randy Watson and groups representing teachers, school boards and school administrators.

Kelly’s order also came after the number of confirmed coronavirus cases doubled in two days, reaching at least 18 on Tuesday, with one COVID-19-related death in Wyandotte County. Most of the cases are in the Kansas City area, but western Kansas also reported a case.

“The reality of this pandemic is that it cannot be controlled statewide if school buildings return to normal operations or if they respond inconsistently within our local communities,” Kelly said during a Statehouse news conference.

For most people, the new coronavirus causes only mild or moderate symptoms, such as fever and cough, and the vast majority recover. But for some, especially older adults and people with existing health problems, it can cause more severe illness, including pneumonia.

Kelly’s order to close schools concerned some Republican legislators, and Senate health committee Chairman Gene Suellentrop, a Wichita Republican, called it “asinine.” He said schools could remain closed for two or four weeks, but shuttering them for the rest of the semester is overreacting. He said he’s also worried about the economy because, “People get too fearful.”

“I’m going to go out into public right now,” Suellentrop said as he left the Statehouse. “I’m going to go have dinner, I’m going to mingle, and I’m going to spend money in the economy, to keep things moving. I hope everybody else does, too.”

Kelly and Watson already had urged schools to remain closed this week if they were not already on spring break, and some local health officers had started ordering them closed. Kelly and Watson said a task force will release guidelines later this week for teaching students.

The governor said that after some buildings are “thoroughly sanitized,” they may reopen to allow educators to plan services or to host fewer than 10 students. Watson said the task force recommendations will address teaching students who may not have adequate access to computers or internet services. Kansas has almost 500,000 K-12 students.

GOP Sen. Julia Lynn, of Olathe, said she is skeptical such plans will deliver an adequate education.

Kelly also acknowledged that schools might not reopen in August for the new school year.

“This situation has evolved rapidly and will continue to do so for the foreseeable future,” she said.

Lawrence Public Schools had previously been closed until the end of the month by order of the local health department. The district will continue to discuss “options for providing essential services, such as serving school meals and supporting continuous learning,” spokeswoman Julie Boyle said.

The district began offering grab-and-go breakfast and lunch at several sites around Lawrence on Tuesday.

“These unprecedented circumstances call for all of us to work together as a community to develop solutions for our children,” Superintendent Anthony Lewis said in a statement shared with school families and staff.

“We understand that school closures shift the responsibility for educating children to families,” Lewis said. “Our professional staff stands ready to support all students and families.”

Boyle said that building administrators will meet staff next week with the intention of implementing a remote education plan beginning March 30.

All Lawrence school activities are also canceled while school buildings remain closed, unless special permission is granted by the superintendent, Boyle said.

Kelly has previously stopped short of taking actions other governors have to check the spread of coronavirus, such as ordering the closing of private businesses or imposing a curfew. She’s argued that Kansas should take steps fitting a state with a relatively low population density.

But state universities already have moved classes online and the University of Kansas, Kansas State and Wichita State announced Tuesday that all classes would be held remotely for the rest of the semester.

Officials in Johnson and Wyandotte counties and Jackson County, Missouri, ordered the closing of restaurants, bars, taverns, clubs and movie theaters through April 1, with the exception of drive-thru, pickup and delivery services.

And Kansas lottery officials announced the four state-owned casinos will close at the end of the day Tuesday until at least March 30. The casinos are in Kansas City, Pittsburg, Dodge City and Mulvane, south of Wichita.

Health officials on Tuesday reported the first coronavirus cases in Douglas County; Miami County, south of the Kansas City metropolitan area; and Ford County, in southwest Kansas. Franklin County in eastern Kansas and Butler County outside of Wichita each have recorded a case.

Johnson County, the state’s most populous county, has reported 10 confirmed cases and neighboring Wyandotte County, three.

Kansas health officials said 16 of the cases involve Kansas residents. The Ford County case involves a visitor from Oregon and the Miami County case, someone from Missouri.

The state’s only COVID-19-related death so far was last week, a man in his 70s who lived in a Kansas City, Kansas nursing home. Dr. Lee Norman, the state’s health secretary, said last week that the man was immobile so someone brought the infection to him.

– Journal-World staff added related local coverage to this report.

More coverage: Coronavirus (COVID-19)

As the pandemic continues, the Journal-World will be making coverage of COVID-19 available outside of the paywall on LJWorld.com.

Find all coverage of city, county and state responses to the virus at: ljworld.com/coronavirus/

What to do if you think you may have COVID-19

Patients who have symptoms — difficulty breathing, cough and fever — should stay home, immediately isolate themselves from others and call their health care providers. Patients should never show up unannounced at a medical office or hospital. Instead, they should call ahead to explain their symptoms and give health care workers the ability to minimize the risk to others.

If patients do not have health care providers, they may call the Lawrence Douglas-County health department’s coronavirus line, 785-856-4343.

For updated information on the outbreak, Kansas residents can email COVID-19@ks.gov or call 866-534-3463 (866-KDHEINF), which is staffed 8 a.m. to 7 p.m., Monday through Friday; 10 a.m. to 2 p.m. Saturday; and 1 p.m. to 5 p.m. Sunday.

More information can be found through the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s website, the Kansas Department of Health and Environment’s website or the Lawrence-Douglas County Public Health website.


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