Most Kansas students must mask up; COVID closes 1 district

August 27, 2021 GMT

MISSION, Kan. (AP) — 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.

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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 there were at least 40 positive cases in the first eight days of school, and outbreaks were identified in three of the district’s six buildings. Positive numbers were continuing to rise as the district tested close contacts, including more than 200 students on Thursday alone, the district said in a statement.

“It is our hope that the temporary shut down will allow the virus incubation period to run its course,” Superintendent Adam Hatfield said in the statement.

Hatfield said the district was reviewing its policies and consulting with medical staff “to make sure we are doing all we can” before schools reopen on Sept. 7, which is the Tuesday after Labor Day.

It was unclear whether that meant a mask mandate was on the table. A district spokeswoman said in an email that the district was not commenting further.

Laura Rettig, the head of the Sumner County health department, said her agency is pro-mask, noting that they “slow the spread.” She said the district is aware of its position.

“I would hope any district would look at masks,” she said. “No one likes to wear them but it does help, especially when you are dealing with a population under 12 that can’t get vaccinated yet. And they are in fairly close contact. Not every school can separate.”

In the Wichita area, the 7,600-student Maize district, which doesn’t require face masks, 15 students and three staff members tested positive during the first week of school. That week, 219 students were identified as high-risk close contact cases, which means they were unmasked during exposure to someone who was confirmed positive. High-risk contact students who were unvaccinated or had not recently had COVID had to quarantine and miss school for up to 10 days or could opt to undergo daily testing and monitor their symptoms to stay in school.

Lori O’Toole Buselt, the district’s spokeswoman, said students can avoid the hassle by just wearing a mask.

“Then you don’t have to test, you don’t have to quarantine,” she said. “You just can stay in school and monitor for symptoms.”

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.”