MISSION, Kan. — More than half of Kansas students are now required to wear masks in school as the delta variant rages, leading to widespread quarantines and forcing one district to call off classes because of a COVID-19 outbreak.
An Associated Press analysis has found that 30 of the state's 50 largest districts have mask mandates in place, with most passed in the last month during often heated meetings and protests. Those 30 districts educate a combined 262,585 of the state's 476,435 public schoolchildren.
Several other smaller districts also have mandated masks as well, including Atchison and Wamego.
Gov. Laura Kelly has repeatedly said that students need to wear masks in school, including in a Facebook post this week that also urged people to get vaccinated. Just 51.9% of all Kansans have received at least the first dose of the vaccine, compared to 61.1% nationally, state and federal data shows.
The state averaged 1,387 new COVID-19 cases per day for the seven days ending Friday, the highest average in seven months.
Most of the mandates, including those in Wichita, Olathe and Shawnee Mission, require masks for all students. A handful, though, only require masks for students who are too young to be vaccinated.
Remaining mask-free is proving challenging. In the 1,400-student Wellington district in south-central Kansas, schools were shuttered and sports practices canceled starting Friday. The move comes after the school district and the Sumner County Health Department determined three of the district's six buildings had COVID outbreaks. Students won't return until Sept. 7, the district announced in a Facebook post.
"We understand the frustrations and that this situation is not ideal, but the health and safety of our students and staff and community is our top priority," Superintendent Adam Hatfield said in a letter to parents and guardians in the district.
Other districts, including Tonganoxie, started the year with masks optional but then quickly switched to requiring them after students started testing positive and dozens were ordered to quarantine.
Loren Feldkamp, the superintendent of the 1,800-student district in the northeast part of the state, said that the high school principal spent from 8:30 a .m. to 5 p.m. Sunday calling close contacts of people who had tested positive. The calls followed just one and half days of classes the previous week. The new mask mandate took effect Monday.
"There is no way that we can continue to do that each and every day," he said. "The best way for us to keep kids in school face-to-face is if we are masked up and that is really the final answer to the entire problem."