Kansas Board of Education to vote on Gov. Laura Kelly’s plan to delay school opening

Gov. Laura Kelly signed a bill Monday authorizing an overhaul of the computer network at the Kansas Department of Labor and implemented other reforms to address issues arising during the COVID-19 pandemic. (Sherman Smith/Kansas Reflector)
Gov. Laura Kelly signed a bill Monday authorizing an overhaul of the computer network at the Kansas Department of Labor and implemented other reforms to address issues arising during the COVID-19 pandemic. (Sherman Smith/Kansas Reflector)

TOPEKA — The Kansas State Board of Education will sit in judgment Wednesday of Gov. Laura Kelly’s response to the uptick in coronavirus cases and deaths that features a delay in opening of public schools serving 500,000 students until early September.

Kelly released text of the directive Monday calling for postponement of in-person instruction, athletic events and all other extracurricular activities until after Labor Day on Sept. 9. The state Board of Education will take up the issue at 10 a.m. Wednesday. The governor said the order wouldn’t be signed pending outcome of the education board’s vote on the plan.

“Putting nearly half a million kids and faculty in daily, large gatherings is the exact opposite of what health experts have urged us to do,” Kelly said.

Exceptions to the proposed school-start order would be allowed for students enrolled concurrently for college credit, K-12 students filling out enrollment papers for the 2020-2021 school year and to accommodate screenings or evaluations to determine academic placement of students.

Kelly signed a separate order mandating adoption of the state Board of Education health guidelines for operation of K-12 schools during the pandemic. This edict requires everyone in school buildings to wear a mask. All individuals entering a school will have their temperature checked daily, must wash their hands at least once an hour and maintain a six-foot social distance from others.

Exceptions to this rule would be confined to when a person was eating, to nonstudents under age 5, for a mental health condition or disability, for the deaf or hard of hearing and when a face covering created a workplace risk.

“There’s nothing I want more, nothing that most Kansans want more, than to get back to normal,” Kelly said in an interview. “Just as we had to make a decision last spring to close down because of this virus, we have got to remember that the virus is still with us.”

The Kansas Department of Health and Environment reported Monday that 307 people infected with coronavirus had died, an increase of eight since Friday. Two-thirds of these fatalities were among people 75 years of age or older. The state has logged 23,334 positive tests for COVID-19, a surge of more than 1,350 from Friday.

Senate President Susan Wagle, R-Wichita, said decisions about when to initiate K-12 classes ought to be left to parents, teachers and health professionals at the community level. She said the state Board of Education would be better off sticking with a strategy to “open schools safely rather than sign off a one-size-fits-all mandate.”

Kelly said she was aware of lobbying by Republicans to convince a majority of the state Board of Education to vote against her plan to buy time before starting fall classes.

“I’m asking each state Board of Education member to put politics aside and think about our children, their parents, their teachers and the survival of our Main Street businesses,” the Democratic governor said. “We don’t know the long-term consequences of COVID-19 in adults yet, let alone our children. If we don’t have healthy Kansans, we don’t have a healthy economy.”

During a special session of the Kansas Legislature in June, the GOP-led House and Senate gave this oversight duty to the 10 elected members of the state Board of Education. The action was in response to the governor’s unilateral decision in March to declare a state of emergency and close school buildings to no more than 10 students at a time for remainder of the spring semester.

The result was that most instruction over a two-month period before summer break occurred online or through lessons sent home. The sudden transition away from the normal in-person model was difficult for children who lost contact with teachers. Some students struggled with remote learning because they didn’t have reliable internet service or an appropriate place at home to study.

Kelly said the state’s 286 local school boards could use the extra three weeks to decide how best to protect the health of students, educators, staff and parents of children attending classes in school buildings. The state Board of Education last week endorsed a 1,100-page report covering all aspects of the reopening with onsite classes, a hybrid of in-person and online instruction and full remote learning. It identified core knowledge and skills students should learn and established expectations for teachers, parents and students.

“Our schools, our teachers, our parents all need some time to digest all of that, and really put it all together in a workable plan for each of the school districts and then move forward,” the governor said. “We’ve got to use, again, the science and the data to determine how and when we can safely open our schools.”

Randy Watson, the state education commissioner, says safety should be the top priority for the reopening of schools. (Sherman Smith/Kansas Reflector)
Randy Watson, the state education commissioner, says safety should be the top priority for the reopening of schools. (Sherman Smith/Kansas Reflector)

Randy Watson, commissioner of the state Department of Education, said he appreciated the governor’s leadership and that of KDHE during the pandemic. He said all schools should adhere to rigorous health and safety precautions when opened.

“We need students in the schools,” Watson said. “But we have to do so with safety as our top priority.”

It’s possible any of the 105 county commissions in Kansas could attempt to derail the governor’s health orders on wearing a mask in schools. Another complicating issue is the expiration of Kelly’s COVID-19 disaster declaration on Sept. 15. To enforce the governor’s order on mask wearing in schools, her disaster declaration would need to be approved by the State Finance Council, which includes the governor and top House and Senate leaders of both political parties.

There is pressure for districts to open as normal in August because lack of day care options would make it difficult for parents to hold down jobs if their kids were not in school.

While the state Board of Education agreed to endorse a task force report, “Navigating Change: Kansas’ Guide to learning and Safe School Operations,” the document constituted a set of recommendations rather than requirements to local school boards.

State Board of Education member Ann Mah, who serves 29 districts in six counties, said she was torn between taking the governor’s advice and considering an alternative tied to a slow opening of the fall semester. This could be beneficial to the youngest children, students with disabilities and kids at most at-risk to struggle with academics.

“There are 70 counties that could open tomorrow and would be fine,” Mah said. “We’ve got a couple dozen that are hot spots.”

Republican leaders in the Kansas House said the safety of children came first, but their need for education, socialization and other services delivered through school districts was vital.

House Speaker Ron Ryckman, R-Olathe, and other GOP leaders in the House didn’t appreciate Kelly’s remarks last week on the politicization of decisions about opening K-12 schools on time.

Demonstrators cheer Gov. Laura Kelly following her announcement of an order delaying the opening of public schools. (Sherman Smith/Kansas Reflector)
Demonstrators cheer Gov. Laura Kelly following her announcement of an order delaying the opening of public schools. (Sherman Smith/Kansas Reflector)

“The issue is too important to play partisan politics,” Ryckman said. “That is exactly why we passed House Bill 2016, so no governor would have unilateral power.”

Rep. Stephanie Clayton, an Overland Park Democrat who has two children in Shawnee Mission schools, said she endorsed the governor’s delay strategy.

“I want children, teachers and staff to be safe, and this gives us time to get on top of this and flatten the curve,” Clayton said.

Salina resident Gerrett Morris said in a letter to state Board of Education member Denna Horst, who represents districts in north-central Kansas, that members of his family were eager for initiation of the 2020-2021 school year but felt August was too soon.

“As bad as we want to be in the classroom, we believe that it is not safe yet,” Morris said. “I am writing to you today to encourage you to support Governor Kelly and give our state a little more time to get this pandemic under control.”