Sedgwick County likely to drop mask mandate this week; Kansas lawmakers try again to push schools to reopen
Story updated at 10:14 p.m. Tuesday:
TOPEKA — Officials in Kansas’ second-most-populous county are considering dropping a mask mandate, citing changes in laws to manage the coronavirus pandemic and other emergencies awaiting Democratic Gov. Laura Kelly’s signature.
Sedgwick County commissioners said the bill that the GOP-controlled Legislature approved last week essentially keeps them from restricting businesses for the rest of the pandemic, The Wichita Eagle reports. They cited provisions that could open the county to lawsuits and said they would probably consider rescinding their mask mandate this week.
Republican lawmakers also were trying to push a handful of the state’s 286 school districts that don’t have in-person classes into fully reopening. The House on Tuesday approved a bill that would require all districts to offer full-time in-person classes to all students by March 31.
GOP legislators last year forced Kelly to accept county control of mask mandates and restrictions on businesses and public gatherings to keep a state of emergency in place during the pandemic. The bill sent to her last week continues the state of emergency until May 28 and preserves local control for future emergencies. It also allows lawsuits by residents who say they are harmed by the restrictions.
Kelly last week called that bill “reasonable,” signaled she was inclined to sign it and said she had asked Democratic lawmakers to support it. Democratic Rep. Elizabeth Bishop, of Wichita, said they were advised that the measure “could be worse.”
Sedgwick County officials said the bill tips court challenges of mask mandates and other restrictions in favor of the challengers. The bill requires the courts to hear challenges within 72 hours.
If the county were to continue the mask mandate, the likely result would be clogged courts and a loss at the end of the day, Commissioner David Dennis said.
“I don’t see that we have much authority left,” he said.
The bill on schools, approved Tuesday by the House on a 77-46 vote, is the second attempt by Republicans to mandate that all districts offer in-person classes to all students. A bill setting a March 26 deadline passed the Senate but failed in the House last week.
Some GOP lawmakers saw the change as permanent and thought it conflicted with provisions of the bill on Kelly’s desk, which leaves decisions on closing school buildings to local school boards. The second proposal applies only to the current school year.
That second school reopening bill went to the Senate, but it wasn’t clear Tuesday whether members would vote on it or work on a third alternative.
Kelly has suggested that such a bill is unnecessary because school districts have done a “great job” of returning to in-person classes when it’s safe. She wouldn’t say Tuesday whether she would veto a new version because “I don’t know exactly what’s going to show up on my desk.”
Many Republicans criticized Kelly for shutting K-12 buildings from mid-March 2020 until the end of that spring semester and argued that students had suffered academically and emotionally.
With Kelly running for reelection in 2022, the Kansas GOP wants to direct parents’ frustrations toward her, even though decisions about in-person classes are in the hands of elected local school boards. Shannon Golden, the state party’s executive director, promoted an online petition Monday telling the governor and the state Department of Health and Environment “to reopen our schools NOW!”
Meanwhile, the Senate health committee is considering a measure that would prohibit the health department’s top administrator from mandating additional vaccines for schools and day cares, including inoculations against COVID-19, The Topeka Capital-Journal reports.
Currently, the state has a list of vaccine requirements for children in schools and day cares, and the health department’s head can add new immunizations. But under legislation reviewed by the committee Monday, only the Legislature could expand the list.
Committee Chair Richard Hilderbrand, a Galena Republican, told The Associated Press that he hoped for a vote on the measure this week. He said he didn’t think the department should have the power to require new vaccinations.