Despite COVID-19 spike, Kansas faces push to reopen schools
Updated at 8:20 p.m. Friday
TOPEKA — Kansas’ Republican-controlled state school board is facing pressure from conservatives to scuttle Democratic Gov. Laura Kelly’s plan to delay the reopening of K-12 schools, even as a resurgence in coronavirus cases intensifies.
The elected, 10-member State Board of Education can block Kelly’s plan under a law enacted last month as a compromise between Kelly and a GOP-controlled Legislature often critical of her handling of the pandemic. Kelly plans to issue an order Monday to delay the reopening of schools for 519,000 elementary, middle and high school students for three weeks, from mid-August until after Labor Day. The board is expected to meet within days.
Senate President Susan Wagle, a conservative Wichita Republican, has publicly called on people to urge the board to reject Kelly’s proposed delay. The small-government, free-market Kansas Policy Institute think tank, influential with GOP conservatives, also urged similar action Friday, saying a delayed school start would hurt children.
Kelly cited the continued growth in confirmed coronavirus cases in announcing her plan this week. The state reported its worst seven-day spike in cases since the pandemic began on Friday when the Kansas Department of Health and Environment reported more than 1,000 confirmed new cases in just two days, bringing the total for the pandemic close to 22,000.
“We’re going in the wrong direction,” said Ashley Jones-Wisner, the state health department’s spokesperson.
Kelly’s announcement came only hours after the State Board of Education approved 1,100 pages of guidelines for reopening K-12 schools safely, including recommendations for all staff to wear masks, as well as students in middle and high school. But they weren’t mandates, reflecting the state’s longstanding tradition of leaving decisions about building operations to local school boards.
Republicans have an 8-2 majority on the state board. Kelly does not yet appear to have the necessary six votes for approval of her order. Seven board members — including the two Democrats — told The Associated Press as of Friday that they hadn’t decided how to vote.
They said they needed to see the text of Kelly’s order and were conferring with teachers, superintendents, locals school board members and public health officials. They also said they were getting inundated with calls and emails, from all points of view.
Board member Jim Porter, a Fredonia Republican, said local boards should make such decisions, but he recognizes that Kansas faces “a very serious health concern.”
“I am conflicted,” Porter said. “I personally have a medically fragile granddaughter.”
The Kansas Policy Institute cited guidance from the American Academy of Pediatrics strongly advocating that reopening plans start “with a goal of having students physically present in school.” The KPI said long times away from schools and their associated support services often results in social isolation, hampering efforts to address learning deficits and physical and mental health.
Educators and state and local officials argue that children benefit from interacting with each other and that in-person classes generally are better for instruction than online classes. Also, the state had reported no COVID-19-related deaths in children under 18 as of Friday, with 8.4% of the state’s total cases in minors.
State school board member Janet Waugh, a Kansas City, Kan., Democrat, said she’s heard from teachers who miss their students but also from teachers “who are making their wills and revising their wills.”
The state health department said Kansas has had a total of 21,965 reported novel coronavirus cases, up 1,032 or 4.9% from Wednesday. Infections are thought to be far more numerous because many people have not been tested, and people can be infected without feeling sick.
The health department reported no change in the number of COVID-19-related deaths, making it still 299 for the pandemic. However, Johns Hopkins University put the tally at 305.
Kansas has seen an increase in coronavirus cases with 3,354 during the seven days ending Friday, a jump of 18%. The daily average for new cases during the period was 479. COVID-19-related deaths and hospitalizations have grown more slowly.
After weeks of pressure from Republican legislators, Kelly lifted statewide restrictions on businesses and public gatherings May 26, leaving decisions to the state’s 105 counties. Counties also have the power to opt out of an order Kelly issued July 2 to require people to wear masks in public and at their workplaces, and most have, exempting about 40% of the state’s population.
“The counties have been opening up,” said Barbara Mitchell, a spokesperson for the health department in Johnson County, the state’s most populous county, where a mask mandate is in place. “So there’s a lot of people going back to work and doing activities.”