KANSAS CITY, Mo. — Kansas Gov. Laura Kelly plans to issue two executive orders later this week related to the reopening of schools in the state.
The state will delay the first day of classes until after Labor Day and also plans to mandate districts follow certain health guidance related to preventing the spread of the COVID-19 pandemic, Kelly said Wednesday during a briefing from Topeka.
“There will be some public health mandates, including masking in the public school buildings,” Kelly said.
However, Kansas will not implement a one-size-fits-all plan for all 286 districts public schools districts in the state.
The executive orders will apply only to K-12 schools, not colleges and universities in the state.
“I can’t in good conscience open schools when cases in our state are at an all-time high and continuing to rapidly rise,” Kelly said. “Every action I have taken throughout this pandemic has been done to keep Kansans healthy, keep our state open for business and get our kids back in school.”
Through Wednesday, state and local health departments in Kansas have reported more than 21,000 COVID-19 cases and 300 deaths.
“We need students in school,” Kansas Commissioner of Education Dr. Randy Watson said. “We know that. There’s no one that disputes that, but we have to do that with safety as our top priority.”
Watson said districts will create plans unique to their communities, but the schools “will be expected to adhere to rigorous safety requirements” set forth by state and local health departments.
Kelly termed the mandates, which will be spelled out completely when the order is issued later this week, “guardrails that they have to implement” in the interest of public health. She also said they were designed to protect not only students, but faculty and staff.
“The extra three weeks will allow us to monitor the infection rate,” Kelly said.
The goal will be to bring the infection rate down before children return to classes in person.
The delay also will affect the start of high school sports in Kansas, Kelly said.
"The executive order will apply to all K through 12 activities or academics," she said.
Kansas Department of Health and Environment Director Dr. Lee Norman said Kansas has been classified as a COVID-19 red zone, because of the increasing number of cases and spiking hospitalization rates in places like Lawrence and Wichita.
At least one local school district appreciated the decision.
"We appreciate today’s announcement by Governor Laura Kelly to delay the reopening of schools until after Labor Day," according to a statement from Kansas City, Kansas, Public Schools. "The Governor’s decision will allow KCKPS additional time to discuss and evaluate our proposed options for reopening school. We understand there will be additional questions related to what the delay will mean for our school district, we plan to provide those details in the coming days. The health and safety of our students, staff and their families will always remain a priority as we continue to review reopening options."
Norman said the new COVID-19 peak the state is experiencing, which is beginning to reflect activity around the Fourth of July holiday, is higher than the peak in late April at the start of the pandemic.
He also expects those numbers to continue to climb as we move closer to two weeks from the Independence Day gathering, which would represent one incubation cycle of the virus.
Norman and Kelly chastised the politicization of the pandemic, which included threats to Kelly’s emergency powers from legislators.
“People choosing to reject common sense, public health measures doesn’t happen in a vacuum,” Kelly said.
She said Kansas legislative leaders and national leaders have politicized the response to COVID-19 to the detriment of Kansans’ health, which had a trickle-down effect to county commissioners in the state.
"Even as cases rose, county after county voted to rescind the mask order, and we're now seeing the consequences," Kelly said.
Norman pointed out that cases had flattened by mid-May, a drop he largely credited to stay-at-home orders and gathering restrictions.
Once those went away around Memorial Day weekend, COVID-19 cases surged — and have continued to surge.
Kelly expressed frustration that so many counties refused to adopt her guidance on requiring face masks in public places, which went into effect July 3 and was designed to help prevent a Fourth of July surge.
“Just because you can do something, like work when ill or attend a large gathering, doesn’t mean you should,” Norman said.
It was that experience that also prompted Kelly to put together the forthcoming executive order that will make certain health and safety guidelines mandatory for all public schools in Kansas.
Norman said Kansas successfully flattened the epidemiological curve once before and is optimistic the state can again. In fact, it must if schools are to reopen.
“We have a number of incubation periods between now and Sept. 9,” Norman said. “We can push it down in two incubation periods, as we’ve done before. We must wear masks; we must social distance.”
Otherwise, he said, businesses and schools may have to close again, “if we continue on this trajectory.”
It remains possible the opening of schools for the 2020-21 school year could be further delayed if the pandemic isn’t better controlled by the end of August.
“We will continue to track the data to determine if we can open them then,” Kelly said of the delayed September opening.
Norman also struck a note of caution for those who believe COVID-19 is little more than a super-charged version of the flu.
“We still don’t understand the long-term impacts of this virus ...,” Norman said. “But this is not influenza, where you get it and you recover.”
He said there is growing evidence of ongoing and possibly long-term respiratory, cardiovascular and neurological issues for people who survive a COVID-19 infection.