KANSAS CITY, Mo. — Schools in Kansas won’t be required to wait until after Labor Day to start after all.
The Kansas State Board of Education failed to affirm a proposed executive order from Gov. Laura Kelly that would have delayed the opening of schools statewide until after Labor Day.
The vote during Wednesday's virtual board meeting deadlocked 5-5, but it needed a majority to pass.
Without the executive order, it will be up to individual school districts to determine their own start date, though at least one district — Kansas City, Kansas, Public Schools — has already announced plans to delay the start of the 2020-21 school year until after Labor Day.
Kansas National Education Association President Mark Farr decried the decision and the politics he suspects were behind it and will follow.
"Every educator in Kansas wants — more than anything — to be back in school with students," he said in a statement from the state teachers' union. "As we’ve seen over and over, this virus doesn’t recognize boundaries or borders and is only controlled when everyone does their part. Today’s split-vote ensures that partisan opinion will guide decision making in many districts rather than common sense, rooted in science and supported by medical experts. Sadly, many district leaders have already indicated that they intend to return to ‘business as usual,’ which has proven to be a recipe to grow the spread and impact of this pandemic.”
The health and safety guidelines Kelly mandated in a separate executive order do not require approval from the State Board of Education and will remain in effect.
The vote came despite testimony from Kansas Department of Health and Environment Secretary Dr. Lee Norman that the pandemic is worse now than ever in Kansas.
“The number of cases is going up because we have more disease, not because we're doing more testing,” Norman said, adding that the spike started after the governor’s plan for reopening the state became a guideline rather than a mandate.
When that happened — as a result of House Bill 2016, which broadly limits the governor’s emergency authority — county commissions across the state declined to follow the Ad Astra Plan. The spread of COVID-19 followed.
“This is a terrible trend line and it has not leveled off yet ...,” Norman said. “Schools are not safe islands in an unsafe community. A school cannot be a safe island in an unsafe community where there's a marked increase in cases. If schools are in an unsafe community, they will not be safe.”
The State Board of Education’s check on Kelly’s power also stems from House Bill 2016, which passed the Kansas Legislature last month and requires the state board to approve any executive order closing schools in the state.
Board members are not allowed to change or amend the executive order, only affirm it or reject it.
Board members Kathy Busch, Jim Porter, Janet Waugh, Ann E. Mah and Jim McNiece voted to approve the order.
Members Steve Roberts, Michelle Dombrosky, Deena Horst, Jean Clifford and Ben Jones voted against it.
Two of the three board members who represent the Kansas City area, Dombrosky and Roberts, voted against the order, while Waugh, who serves as Vice Chair, voted for the order.
The tie vote means the executive order failed to receive majority support and, thus, failed, but it doesn’t mean districts can’t make the decision on their own to delay school — and that’s just what Kelly hopes they do.
“The cases of COVID-19 in Kansas are at an all-time high and continue to rise,” Kelly said in a statement after the board's vote. “Our decisions must be informed by public health experts not politics. This vote puts our students, faculty, their families and our economy at risk.
“I will continue to work with our school districts to ensure the safety and wellbeing of our children and ask every school district to delay the start of school.”
Kansas has been declared a “red zone” by the White House with new COVID-19 cases rising at a record rate. The city of Chicago added Kansas travelers to its quarantine order Tuesday, while the state of New York has included Kansas on its quarantine order for more than two weeks.
“Part of the reason for the delay is to give us more time to flatten the curve,” Kelly’s Chief of Staff Will Lawrence said. “This gives school districts more time to prepare to open in the fall.”
Waugh said the state’s top priority should be protecting the health of students and staff, while also ensuring proper education. She said managing a pandemic shouldn’t be left up to local control, but the virus can’t be contained locally and its spread in one community inevitably impacts others.
But Dombrosky, who represents Johnson County, questioned whether children were actually at risk, noting that severe complications are rare. She also expressed concern about “the less fortunate” who will be impacted by delaying the start of school.
Horst also cited food insecurity and other gaps children face by not being in school in voting against the executive order, while Jones said districts need more flexibility to make their own decisions.
Noting that many school leaders and teachers have asked for extra time to prepare for the school year, McNiece supported the governor’s order.
“The better prepared we are ... the longer we'll stay in school, so my vote will be yes,” he said.