Kansas governor says she’ll delay reopening of K-12 schools until after Labor Day
photo by: Conner Mitchell/Journal-World
Story updated at 4:53 p.m. Wednesday
TOPEKA — Gov. Laura Kelly plans to keep Kansas’ K-12 schools closed until after the Labor Day holiday in September as the impact of the COVID-19 pandemic continues to increase in the state.
Kelly announced the plan during a news conference Wednesday and will formally issue the decision Monday through an executive order, which is subject to approval from the Kansas State Board of Education. The order, which does not apply to colleges or universities, will keep schools closed until Sept. 9.
Schools typically open in mid-August, and Kelly said the extra weeks will be key in allowing districts across the state to adequately prepare for the fall semester. She said it will also give officials more time to monitor the statewide infection rate.
“I cannot in good conscience open schools when Kansas has numerous hotspots, where cases are at an all-time high and continuing to rapidly rise,” Kelly said. “Putting nearly half a million kids in daily large gatherings is the exact opposite of what health experts have urged us to do.”
Kelly, a Democrat, was the first governor in the nation to close schools when the pandemic first took hold in March, a move that was met with criticism from many Republican members of the Kansas Legislature. Dr. Lee Norman, secretary of the Kansas Department of Health and Environment, appeared with Kelly at Wednesday’s news conference and said the early action to close schools was actually the key in lowering the virus’ initial spread.
“I believe that real leaders aren’t afraid to confront crisis head on,” Kelly said. “They don’t sit back silently and wait for the situation to get worse. That’s what I’ve done and will continue to do, regardless of the political consequences.”
The Kansas chapter of the National Education Association, a large teachers union in the state, issued a statement in support of Kelly’s decision to delay reopening, saying it expects educators and students to follow necessary public health guidelines, and for everyone to be treated with empathy because of the unprecedented situation.
“This means schools should reopen only when it is safe to do so according to the medical experts at the Kansas Department of Health and Environment who are guiding Governor Laura Kelly’s thoughtful and collaborative response to this crisis,” KNEA president Mark Farr said. “The Governor has pledged that her decisions will be made without concern for political gain and solely in the best interest of the health and well-being of Kansans and we will do everything to assist in upholding that standard.”
Though she often says she doesn’t want to play politics with a public health crisis, Kelly spent some of her public remarks Wednesday chastising state lawmakers for actions taken during the pandemic that data shows prompted the current exponential increases in COVID-19 cases that Kansas is seeing.
Namely, Kelly mentioned the attempt to strip her of powers normally granted to Kansas governors under the state’s emergency powers act. That effort in late May resulted in Kelly being forced to leave previously mandatory statewide guidance on reopening up to local officials — which Norman said is essentially when Kansas lost control of slowing the virus spread.
“People choosing to reject common-sense public health measures doesn’t happen in a vacuum,” Kelly said. “Leadership in the Kansas Legislature and around the country has downplayed the threat of COVID-19, and used their platforms to promote politics instead of public health.”
“Can any of you imagine any other circumstance where hundreds of our friends and neighbors die from a single cause, where we would not all jump into action to do our part?” she said.
Randy Watson, the state’s education commissioner, also appeared at Wednesday’s news conference, hours after the state Board of Education approved reopening guidelines. Watson said individual school districts across the state will use those recommendations to formulate plans that fit their needs.
That said, aspects of the guidance won’t be up to localities to decide. Kelly also said Wednesday that she would issue a separate executive order mandating public health practices such as mask-wearing, social distancing and frequent handwashing in the state’s schools.
“Our schools will be expected to adhere to rigorous safety precautions, as determined collaboratively by the local health departments,” Watson said.
Nearly 1,000 teachers, administrators, parents, school board members, service center employees, members of the medical community and department employees contributed to the State Board of Education’s 1,200-page reopening guidance document, Watson said, which was accepted by the board earlier Wednesday.
Locally, some members of the Lawrence school board have indicated they want at least a hybrid option to accommodate students who need in-person instruction in order to succeed. The Lawrence school district currently has a task force exploring its options for reopening school in the fall.
Kelly did not explicitly address whether there was a benchmark in mind for what would potentially force another closure of the state’s school buildings.
The state on Wednesday confirmed 875 new cases of COVID-19, bringing the state’s total to nearly 21,000. KDHE also confirmed 11 more deaths attributed to the virus, a sharp uptick from past weeks. The state’s death toll from COVID-19 is now 299.