Medical experts dispute claims by Kansas Board of Education member

Health secretary Lee Norman outlines the growing number of COVID-19 infections in Kansas during a news conference last week in which Gov. Laura Kelly announced her order to keep schools closed until after Labor Day. On Wednesday, Norman told board members that schools can't be safe islands in unsafe communities. (Sherman Smith/Kansas Reflector)
Health secretary Lee Norman outlines the growing number of COVID-19 infections in Kansas during a news conference last week in which Gov. Laura Kelly announced her order to keep schools closed until after Labor Day. On Wednesday, Norman told board members that schools can't be safe islands in unsafe communities. (Sherman Smith/Kansas Reflector)

TOPEKA — Kansas State Board of Education member Michelle Dombrosky confronted health secretary Lee Norman during Wednesday’s meeting to ask why his advice — to delay the start of school for three weeks — conflicts with the opinion of other medical experts in the state.

The board member from Olathe identified Children’s Mercy Hospital, the Kansas Chapter of the American Academy of Pediatrics, the Kansas Academy of Family Physicians and the University of Kansas Medical Center as organizations that offered this advice: “Get the kids back in school.”

None of those organizations expressed support or opposition before Wednesday’s meeting regarding Gov. Laura Kelly’s executive order, which would have delayed in-person instruction and activities at public and private K-12 schools until after Labor Day. Dombrosky opposed the governor’s order, which fell one vote short of approval as the state board voted 5-5.

“I’m just looking at Children’s Mercy. I’m just looking at pediatrics. And there’s a lot of them saying get the kids back in school,” Dombrosky said. “We should be listening to the doctors, not the politicians.”

Dombrosky didn’t respond to an email asking her to clarify her remarks. Medical experts, including Norman, agree that placing children in public schools is good for their well-being. The question is when is it safe to do so.

“You don’t have to convince me or other public health officials,” said Norman, secretary of the Kansas Department of Health and Environment. “We very well recognize there are many things other than education — there are benefits for mental health and nutrition, all sorts of things. The motivation is absolutely to get kids back into school. No question about it. Just want to make sure it’s done safely.”

Kelly proposed the delay in response to a surge in coronavirus cases in some areas of the state. Board members who opposed the order preferred to give control to local school boards who can decide whether COVID-19 poses a threat in their area.

Lisa Augustine, spokeswoman for Children’s Mercy Hospital, said “the decision to resume in-person schooling should be made by the local school and school system in conjunction with the local health department.” However, Children’s Mercy didn’t share any advice with board members, Augustine said.

Other organizations more directly refuted Dombrosky’s comments.

Chad Johanning, president of the Kansas Academy of Family Physicians, said the organization supports physically reopening schools but only when it can be done safely. The organization has not counseled members of the board of education, he said.

“Delaying reopening and affirming the governor’s order during this recent increase in COVID cases will support the safe reopening of our schools,” Johanning said. “It is unfortunate that the AAFP position on reopening school is being spun politically to meet a political goal.”

Jill Chadwick, a spokeswoman for the University of Kansas Health System, said Dombrosky misunderstood or took out of context any statements made by the medical network’s experts.

“It needs to be made clear,” Chadwick said. “The University of Kansas Health System has not and will not take a position on the governor’s executive order.”

Mel Hudelson, executive director of Kansas Chapter of the American Academy of Pediatrics, said decisions about when to return to classrooms should be guided by public health agencies rather than politics. KAAP supports the efforts of KDHE, the agency led by Norman.

“Public health experts should tell us when the time is best to safely open school buildings, and educators and administrators should shape how we do it,” Hudelson said. “These decisions should take into account the spread of COVID-19 in the state and the ability of school districts to adapt to make in-person learning safe.”

Thousands of public comments were submitted to the state Board of Education in advance of the vote. The written comments included insight of two Wichita-area pediatricians who endorsed Kelly’s recommendation to put off school for three weeks.

Paul Teran, a member of the pediatrics department at the KU School of Medicine in Wichita, said opening schools to 500,000 students and thousands of educators in August would be unwise.

“Delaying school reopening until after Labor Day will allow public health officials to have a better understanding of the viral transmission in our state and also give schools more time to prepare and implement measures that will improve student and staff safety,” Teran said.

“It is very important that we get our students back into the school setting as soon as we can,” said Stephanie Kuhlmann, an associate professor of pediatrics at KU School of Medicine who practices medicine at Wesley Children’s Hospital in Wichita. “However, it is even more important that our students return to school in the safest manner and environment as possible.”

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Sherman Smith
Sherman Smith is the Kansas Press Association’s journalist of the year. He has written award-winning news stories about the instability of the Kansas foster care system, misconduct by government officials, sexual abuse, technology, education, and the Legislature. He previously spent 16 years at the Topeka Capital-Journal. A lifelong Kansan, he graduated from Emporia State University in 2004 as a Shepherd Scholar with a degree in English.
Tim Carpenter
Tim Carpenter has reported on Kansas for 35 years. He covered the Capitol for 16 years at the Topeka Capital-Journal and previously worked for the Lawrence Journal-World and United Press International. He has been recognized for investigative reporting on Kansas government and politics. He won the Kansas Press Association's Victor Murdock Award six times. The William Allen White Foundation honored him four times with its Burton Marvin News Enterprise Award. The Kansas City Press Club twice presented him its Journalist of the Year Award and more recently its Lifetime Achievement Award. He earned an agriculture degree at Kansas State University and grew up on a small dairy and beef cattle farm in Missouri. He is an amateur woodworker and drives Studebaker cars.