TOPEKA – The recent death of a Kansas middle school student from COVID-19 raised the urgency Wednesday of a panel focused on pandemic school safety to implement precautionary measures across the state.
In addition to the death, outbreaks at schools across Kansas more than doubled over the last week, and cases have continued to outpace the previous school year. Kansas also remains well behind the national average for vaccinations among 12- to 17-year-olds.
Education officials and health professionals in the Safe Classrooms Workgroup are working to encourage local districts to implement mask policies and testing strategies as soon as possible. Vernon Mills, a retired pediatrician on the panel, said some districts may need a more aggressive approach to prevent further illness and death.
“I’m not above putting it right in your face because I think that’s the only way sometimes it gets across to people that this is not a game,” Mills said. “This is not a political contest where we are going to go back at the end of the day and just lick our wounds. We’re talking about somebody who is going to die because of the decision you made.”
Since Monday, the Kansas Department of Health and Environment has reported 2,562 new cases and three new deaths. There are currently 72 active school outbreaks in Kansas, an increase of 41 since Sept. 13, and 537 cases.
The increase has led to more school districts implementing mask policies and testing strategies, but many are either still holding out or have not responded to KDHE surveys.
In an update to the latest data on precautionary measures being taken at schools across the state, Marci Nielsen, chief adviser to the governor for COVID-19 coordination, said seven new school districts have submitted a testing plan to KDHE.
Through the KDHE’s K-12 Stay Positive Test Negative Initiative, school districts can create a flexible testing strategy from three models with funding and organizational assistance from the state agency. The seven new school districts represent about 2,000 Kansas students.
Of state school districts, 11% have expressed no interest in the funding available.
Kansas Department of Education commissioner Randy Watson said these testing strategies have been well received in the districts that have implemented them.
“It’s a great method to stay in school,” Watson said. “One superintendent noted how many instructional days he has saved by simply doing the testing protocol.”
Watson said there is optimism that COVID-19 vaccines will be available for children ages 5 to 11 by the end of the semester. Kansas youth vaccination rate for 12- to 17-year-olds is currently 48.8%, compared with 56.5% nationwide.
Three school districts have implemented a mask requirement for at least some students since last week and one school, which had previously not reported to KDHE, has no mask mandate. However, more than 50% of school districts have yet to respond to the KDHE survey.
Jennifer Bacani McKenney, a family physician and Wilson County health officer, said the workgroup should consider what other states are doing to ensure they have the necessary data.
“We know that things change week by week and day by day really,” Bacani McKenney said. “How do we make it a very simple process for the schools to communicate with us so that we can have even better data, so we don’t have this big void of information?”
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