Kansas governor says she’ll delay reopening of K-12 schools
TOPEKA, Kan. (AP) — Kansas’ governor on Wednesday said she would delay the reopening of the state’s K-12 schools for nearly a month until after Labor Day because of a resurgence in reported coronavirus cases that’s not under control.
Democratic Gov. Laura Kelly’s announcement came as the state reported its worst weeklong spike in confirmed coronavirus cases since the pandemic began. The governor also didn’t rule out ordering the closing of bars and taverns again, with public health officials blaming a lack of mask use and social distancing in those places for part of the surge.
Kelly’s order must be approved by the State Board of Education under a law enacted last month that resulted from a compromise between the Democratic governor and a Republican-controlled Legislature often critical of her handling of the pandemic. The GOP has an 8-2 majority on the elected state school board, but it is less conservative than the Legislature.
“I cannot in good conscience open schools when Kansas has numerous hot spots where cases are at an all-time and continuing to rapidly rise,” Kelly said during a Statehouse news conference.
The state Department of Health and Environment reported Wednesday that Kansas has had 20,933 cases since the pandemic began, up 865, or 4.4% in just two days. The health department said reported COVID-19-related deaths rose by 11, to 299, though Johns Hopkins University put the number at 304.
Kansas has reported an average of 474 new cases a day over the past seven days — its worst seven-day average during the pandemic. The number of reported cases in Kansas has grown by nearly 40% in two weeks, with 5,943 new cases confirmed.
“It’s awful,” Dr. Lee Norman, the head of the state health department, said during a Zoom news conference Wednesday morning with University of Kansas Health System officials.
Later he added, “Mass gatherings are evil, and I don’t care what kind of gatherings they are.”
Kelly’s plans for schools quickly generated criticism from the Republican-controlled Legislature, which previously complained that she was reopening the state’s economy too slowly. Kelly’s announcement came only hours after the state school board unanimously approved roughly 1,100 pages of reopening guidelines — but no mandates — for local boards of education.
Kelly ordered all K-12 buildings closed in mid-March for the rest of the spring semester to check the spread of coronavirus and faced criticism then from GOP lawmakers for acting so aggressively when Kansas had only 16 confirmed cases in five of its 105 counties. She was the nation’s first governor to close all K-12 schools.
Senate President Susan Wagle, a Wichita Republican and vocal Kelly critic, said Wednesday: “The Legislature intended to pass these decisions on to local governing authorities, where teachers, parents and health care professionals all have a voice.”
Kelly said she will issue an executive order Monday to delay the start of the new school year from mid-August until Sept. 9 to give the state’s 286 local school districts time to prepare for reopening their buildings with extra health and safety standards. She said she will issue a second order making parts of the state board’s guidelines mandatory.
The state board’s guidelines call for teachers and staff to wear masks inside and suggests all students be told to wear them if they’re in middle or high school. It recommends hourly hand-washing, daily temperature checks for all staff, and limiting visitors and the movement of students.
Board member Deena Horst, a Salina Republican and a former Kansas House member, said local school districts should decide when buildings reopen.
“When they’ve had maybe 12 total cases and there’s no active cases in their communities now, telling them that they cannot start school is taking the decision out of their hands,” Horst said.
Amanda Painter-Ingham, a K-2 special education teacher in the Lawrence, said before Kelly’s announcement that she’s “terrified” of bringing the coronavirus from her classroom to her family.
“I have a son who’s high risk. I have a husband who’s high risk, and I have mother who’s high risk,” Painter-Ingham said, adding that she’d already bought an outdoor camping shower and personal protective equipment.
Norman said during Kelly’s news conference that if the resurgence in new cases continues as it has, “We will break our hospital system.” The availability of intensive care unit beds especially is a concern for him and other officials.
“There is no way schools or businesses will be able to return to normal this fall if we continue this trajectory,” Norman said.
Under pressure from the Legislature, Kelly lifted statewide restrictions on businesses and public gatherings on May 26, leaving the rules to the state’s 105 counties.
She could attempt to close bars statewide as she did in late March, but the new pandemic law would allows counties to opt out. Most have opted out of an order she issued July 2 directing people to wear masks in public and at their workplaces.
The governor said about closing bars: “That’s something we could consider.”
Andy Tsubasa Field in Topeka also contributed to this report.
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