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Masks touted as Kansas reports fewer school COVID outbreaks

October 7, 2021 GMT

TOPEKA, Kan. (AP) — Health officials are frustrated that many school boards remain reluctant to adopt mask mandates, even though most COVID-19 outbreaks in Kansas schools are occurring in districts without such requirements.

The state has 68 active school clusters, down from 79 a week ago, the Kansas Department of Health and Environment announced Wednesday. And those clusters have been connected to 596 cases, one hospitalization and one death.

Of the active outbreaks from last week, only 29% occurred in districts that reported having a mask requirement, The Topeka Capital-Journal reported. The outbreaks at schools without mask mandates or that did not report what their mask policies were had clusters with about five to six times as many cases per capita, according to health department data.

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“It’s important to help parents understand that having your child wear masks in school keeps them there in school and it keeps the schools operating and functioning,” said Stephanie Kuhlmann, a pediatric hospitalist at Wesley Children’s Hospital during a Wednesday meeting of the governor’s Safer Classrooms Workgroup.

Only about 20% of school districts report requiring masks for most or all of their students, but those districts educate about 63% of the state’s student population, data presented at the workshop shows.

“We have studies that show that masks work in kids,” said Dena Hubbard, with the Kansas American Academy of Pediatrics, during the meeting. “Now we have data that masks work in prevention of spread in Kansas. Why do we still have this percentage (of schools) that has no mask policy or is encouraged but not required?”

Without universal masking, teachers become preoccupied with contact tracing and structuring classrooms to avoid close contacts, said Kevin Riemann, executive director of the Kansas National Education Association.

Jennifer Bacani McKenney, the Wilson County health officer, suggested making sure school boards have that data when making decisions.

But G.A. Buie, executive director of the United School Administrators of Kansas, said a lack of data isn’t the issue.

“I hate to be honest about this,” Buie said, “but our school boards and our administrators have the data. It’s just very difficult with the ‘I’ mentality of many of the people attending our board meetings and being frustrated with the masking. It’s very difficult for those board members to say yes to masking when there’s so many people in their ears, follow them out to the parking lots.”