Kansas Board of Education blocks Gov. Laura Kelly’s plan to delay K-12 classes

By: - July 22, 2020 11:57 am
Members of the Kansas State Board of Education, who met via video conference Wednesday, rejected the governor's order delaying the opening of public schools until after Labor Day. (Sherman Smith/Kansas Reflector)

Members of the Kansas State Board of Education, who met via video conference Wednesday, rejected the governor’s order delaying the opening of public schools until after Labor Day. (Sherman Smith/Kansas Reflector)

The Kansas State Board of Education on Wednesday rejected Gov. Laura Kelly’s executive order to delay the start of public and private school instruction for three weeks because of a resurgence of coronavirus in the state, with half the board members citing a need for a more local approach.

The controversial decision by Kelly to seek a statewide mandate postponing the launch of the academic year from mid-August until Sept. 8 was based on the governor’s concern about potentially amplifying the spread of COVID-19 through mass gatherings of students, teachers and staff.

“Instead of focusing where the spikes are occurring we have a one size fits all solution,” said 6th District board member Deena Horst. “For my small rural districts, the Governor’s order is problematic.”

Kansas education commissioner Randy Watson listens to discussion during Wednesday’s board meeting. (Kansas State Department of Education)

The 10-member State Board of Education declined by way of a 5-5 vote to adopt the order following a two-hour debate conducted online. The governor’s executive order requiring everyone inside a school building to wear a mask was not up for a vote and will remain in effect, said education commissioner Randy Watson.

Board members, who received more than 10,000 public comments and met with superintendents, teachers and local school board members before the meeting, said local school boards, not the state, should decide when they are prepared to reopen.

“The timeline is different for each school board and every community, and this order does not provide this flexibility for our districts,” said Ben Jones, the board member from the 7th district.

Board member Michelle Dombrosky, who represents the 3rd district, said some districts already are prepared.

“We should be listening to the doctors, not the politicians, when we make this decision,” Dombrosky said. “The districts have been preparing for this and are prepared for this.”

Kelly asked Monday for the delay to allow schools time to take necessary protective measures for more than 500,000 students. She urged board members to take seriously the threat of COVID-19 infections that have skyrocketed in recent weeks.

Janet Waugh, one of two Democrats on the board, voted in favor of the order, backing up Kelly’s call for a more patient approach.

“If we don’t accept this order there will be many staff without sufficient training, and then we are putting our educators at a disadvantage,” Waugh said.

Anne Mah, the other Democrat and 4th district board member, said she was not initially in support of the order but was swayed by an outpouring of support from teachers and health experts.

“I decided the smart thing to do was allow those who are most impacted to decide,” Mah said. “The overwhelming response was for me to support the governor’s order, and not by a small margin.”

The state board was granted veto power over school closure orders after Kelly halted in-person instruction in March. She was the first U.S. governor to take that action, and the Republican-led Kansas Legislature was troubled by the unilateral directive.

Kelly said the board’s decision on Wednesday puts “students, faculty and their families and our economy at risk.”

“I will continue to work with our school districts to ensure the safety and well-being of our children and ask every school district to delay the start of school,” Kelly said.

Senate President Susan Wagle, a Republican from Wichita, thanked the board for showing confidence in local leaders.

“Our state is extremely diverse, and I will continue to advocate for local control rather than a one-size-fits-all mandate by one sole leader,” Wagle said. “The democratic process and engagement from many Kansans prevailed today.”

The most recent report from the Kansas Department of Health and Environment shows 309 deaths and 24,100 positive cases of COVID-19 in Kansas during the pandemic.

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Noah Taborda
Noah Taborda

Noah Taborda started his journalism career in public radio at KBIA in Columbia, Missouri, covering local government and producing an episode of the podcast Show Me The State while earning his bachelor’s degree in radio broadcasting at the University of Missouri School of Journalism. Noah then made a short move to Kansas City, Missouri, to work at KCUR as an intern on the talk show Central Standard and then in the newsroom, reporting on daily news and feature stories.