Gov. Kelly requires masks, checks for fever at schools
TOPEKA — Democratic Gov. Laura Kelly issued an order Monday requiring masks and daily temperature checks in the state’s K-12 schools, setting some coronavirus-inspired rules that are stricter than guidelines adopted by the Republican-controlled State Board of Education.
Kelly also released the text of a proposed order to delay the reopening of public and private elementary, middle and high schools for three weeks from mid-August until Sept. 9, after the Labor Day holiday. Kansas law requires the state school board’s approval for a delay. The state school board is scheduled to meet this morning.
The Democratic governor’s plans for schools are inspiring criticism from Republicans in the GOP-controlled Legislature and conservatives outside state government already critical of her handling of the pandemic. The small-government, free-market Kansas Policy Institute, influential with GOP conservatives, called Kelly’s actions “simply unwarranted.”
Kansas has seen the number of reported novel coronavirus cases more than double since June 10, when its rolling seven-day average of new cases per day bottomed out after peaking in early May. The state now has reported more than 23,000 cases and more than 300 COVID-19-related deaths.
“I am taking a stand for what I know is right,” Kelly said. “Putting over half a million kids and faculty in daily, large gatherings is the exact opposite of what health experts have urged us to do.”
The State Board of Education unanimously approved 1,100 pages of guidance for the state’s 286 local public school boards last week, setting out what it considers best practices. But it stopped short of imposing a mandate, reflecting the state’s long tradition of allowing local boards to make decisions about operations.
The board recommended daily temperature checks for all teachers and staff as they enter school buildings, while Kelly’s rules include students in the requirement. The board mandated masks for all teachers, staff and middle and high school students, while Kelly is mandating masks for all students, exempting children under 5 who visit schools.
Kelly’s order does make exceptions to the mask rule for eating, people with medical conditions or disabilities that prevent wearing masks and activities for which it is “unsafe or impossible” to wear them.
“Where Kansas goes from here is up to each and every one of us,” she said. “We can still flatten the curve and slow the spread of this disease.”
Both the Kansas Policy Institute and Senate President Susan Wagle, a Wichita Republican, have urged people to contact the State Board of Education and ask it to reject Kelly’s plan to delay the restart of school. Wagle said Monday that lawmakers intended to have local officials make such decisions.
“My hope remains that the board sticks to the plan they developed to open schools safely rather than sign off a one-size-fits-all mandate,” Wagle said in a statement.
Republicans also criticized what they called a “one-size fits all” approach of having statewide restrictions on businesses and public gathering.
Kelly lifted such statewide restrictions on May 26, after weeks of pressure from GOP lawmakers.
On schools, Kelly’s critics note that only 1.4% of the state’s reported coronavirus hospitalizations and none of the reported COVID-19-related deaths are in children under 18, event though they accounted for 8.4% of all infections as of Monday.
But the governor pointed to the recent rise in total reported cases to justify her actions on schools.
The state Department of Health and Environment said Monday that Kansas saw total cases grow by 6.2% since Friday.
The department said there were 1,369 new cases to bring the total to 23,334, but infections are thought to be far more numerous because many people have not been tested, and people can be infected without feeling sick.
The average number of new cases a day over the previous seven days was 468. That was better than the 479 for the seven days ending Friday. But on June 10, the seven-day average for new cases was only 92.
The number of COVID-19-related deaths reported by the department increased by eight to 307 for an increase of 2.7%. Johns Hopkins University put the tally at 309.
Since June 10, 39 counties have seen their number of reported cases at least triple. The state has reported cases in all but three of the state’s 105 counties.
Ellis County, in northwest Kansas, has seen its reported cases rise from 14 to 90, and Kelly said it’s seen a surge arising from Fourth of July celebrations.
The state reported only two coronavirus cases for Phillips County in northwest Kansas on June 10 and 36 on Monday.
Kelly attributed the increase to an outbreak in among residents and staff at a 35-bed nursing home in the small town of Logan.