Kansas officials urge school closings, traveler quarantines

photo by: Associated Press

Kansas Gov. Laura Kelly answers questions from reporters about the state's response to the coronavirus outbreak, Sunday, March 15, 2020, at the Statehouse in Topeka.

Story updated at 10:19 p.m. Sunday

TOPEKA — Gov. Laura Kelly and Kansas’ top education official on Sunday urged public schools to remain closed this week, and the state health department called for people who are traveling outside the U.S. or to several other states to quarantine themselves for two weeks upon their return.

Education Commissioner Randy Watson announced in a tweet that he “strongly recommends” that schools close to help check the spread of the virus that causes COVID-19 if they were not already set to be on spring break. Kelly had a Statehouse news conference to reinforce the message, though the state is not yet ordering schools closed.

Kansas has a long tradition of letting local school districts make decisions about when schools open, when they close for weather or other emergencies and what’s taught in the classroom. But public health officials can order schools closed, as Shawnee County’s health officer did, shuttering all Topeka-area schools through March 27.

“We are really trying to take a Kansas approach to this, but a risk-based strategic plan to address the issues as they come up and to plan for those in the future,” Kelly said. “Right now, we don’t think it’s necessary to shutter schools for the rest of the semester, but we want to be able to plan for that.”

The governor herself is practicing social distancing and washing her hands frequently, and she’s also given up shaking hands, spokeswoman Lauren Fitzgerald said, adding that Kelly’s schedule is being evaluated “to determine the best precautionary measures.”

Kelly said a task force should have recommendations later this week for moving public school classes online, as state universities already have done. She said the task force also will deal with issues such as daycare services for parents and providing meals to children who normally get them at school.

The governor said she expects all public schools to follow her and Watson’s recommendation, but she acknowledged they were leaving the decision to local officials.

“They know what their issues are,” Kelly said. “They’re all different and unique.”

Kansas has one reported death related to COVID-19, a man in his 70s living in a Kansas City, Kan., nursing home, operated by the same company operating a nursing home linked to 22 deaths in Washington state.

The state has confirmed nine coronavirus cases, six of them in Johnson County, the state’s most populous county and home to sprawling and affluent Kansas City suburbs. Local officials confirmed the latest case there Sunday, saying it was a man in his 50s and the origin of his infection isn’t known.

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

The vast majority of people recover from the new virus. According to the World Health Organization, people with mild illness recover in about two weeks, while those with more severe illness may take three to six weeks to recover.

The Kansas Department of Health and Environment recommended home quarantines for anyone who was traveling Sunday or later outside the U.S. or to California, New York or Washington state. It also recommended that people who were on a cruise ship as of Sunday to self-quarantine, as well as anyone who traveled within the past week to Eagle, Gunnison, Pitkin and Summit counties in Colorado.

Kelly called on Kansas residents to use “common sense safety measures,” including avoiding crowds and thorough hand-washing. But she also wouldn’t commit to banning large gatherings.

“Each state is unique,” she said. “The approach that we take to this will be very thoughtful, very measured and very Kansas-centric.”

Less than an hour after Kelly’s news conference ended, the federal Centers for Disease Control recommended that gatherings of 50 or more people be postponed or canceled for the next eight weeks.

The Legislature is scheduled to remain in session until it starts a spring break on April 4. But House leaders are looking to approve a basic budget next week to allow state government to operate after June and approve legislation to give courts and public schools more flexibility in dealing with being forced to close.

More coverage: Coronavirus (COVID-19)

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


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