House leader warned of ‘mask madness’ in Kansas schools, downplayed risk of COVID-19 to kids

By: - August 27, 2021 3:26 pm

Kansas House Majority Leader Dan Hawkins criticized mask mandates for school children in his Aug. 6 newsletter. (Sherman Smith/Kansas Reflector)

TOPEKA — Kansas House Majority Leader Dan Hawkins told his newsletter subscribers he was “heartened” to see so many school districts reject the governor’s advice that students wear face coverings to mitigate the spread of COVID-19.

And he found it “troubling” that some schools were willing to embrace “mask madness.”

“Nothing about these recommendations makes sense,” Hawkins wrote in the Aug. 6 newsletter. “Mask mandates have not been shown to be effective and healthy children have had few issues with COVID.”

Now, the number of Kansas children who are getting sick — especially in districts where masks are not required — is forcing school officials to rethink their approach. On Friday, the Wellington school district announced it was closing its doors until Sept. 7 because of three separate outbreaks of infections in schools where students didn’t have to wear face coverings.

Wellington superintendent Adam Hatfield said the Sumner County Health Department recommended closing school buildings because of outbreaks that produced at least 40 cases of COVID-19 in the first eight days of school. Those numbers were rising with increased testing, he said, and contract tracing indicated “it was only a matter of time before numbers went up in all of our schools to official outbreak levels.”

Hatfield said the district would review policy, consult with medical staff and work diligently to make adjustments for the rest of the school year in regard to learning, athletics and activities.

“This is a challenging time for our entire district,” Hatfield said. “Everybody wants our kids in school. We are hoping it is only a minor setback.”

Scientific research consistently shows mask mandates are effective, in schools and beyond, despite claims by Hawkins, a Republican from Wichita, and Republican U.S. Sen. Roger Marshall, a physician.

Democratic Gov. Laura Kelly required state employees to wear a face mask at work and urged others to follow the advice of medical experts who recommend wearing a mask and social distancing in response to the rapid spread of the COVID-19 delta variant. Hospitalizations and deaths in Kansas have skyrocketed over the past two months, a result of unvaccinated residents and a refusal to follow basic safety precautions.

“Gov. Kelly wants to see students safe and learning in the classroom,” said Reeves Oyster, a spokeswoman for the governor. “The way we make that happen is by wearing masks in schools and getting vaccinated.”

The Kansas Department for Health and Environment on Friday announced 12 more deaths from COVID-19 had been reported since Wednesday, along with 3,452 new infections and 97 more hospitalizations. Statewide, 31% of ICU beds were available.

From the start of the pandemic, nearly 50,000 Kansans younger than 18 have tested positive for the virus. KDHE has reported two deaths from COVID-19 among children younger than 10.

The number of children who are hospitalized in Kansas for COVID-19 declined from 27 on Tuesday to 16 on Thursday.

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention recommend social distancing and universal indoor masking by students, staff, teachers and visitors regardless of vaccination status. Those protections are especially important for children younger than 12, who are not eligible for the vaccines. Children can get sick from COVID-19 and spread the disease to others just as easily as adults. The estimated rate of infection in children ages 5-17 is comparable to infection rates in adults ages 18-49 and higher than rates in adults ages 50 and older.

Initial reports that children were less likely to get sick may have been due to children having less exposure to the virus because of the closure of schools, day care and activities, according to a CDC report on transmission in K-12 schools.

Children are less likely than adults to develop severe illness, but “the extent to which children suffer long-term consequences of COVID-19 is still unknown,” the CDC report said.

In his newsletter, Hawkins complained about the governor’s efforts to encourage school children to wear a mask, and he encouraged supporters to contact local school board members and “let them know how you feel.”

“I agree with our Senator, Dr. Marshall, that these recommendations are not backed by the data or science,” Hawkins said. “What they do is curry favor with elite coastal Democrat donors.”

A spokesman for Hawkins didn’t return a phone call asking if the majority leader’s views on the value of masks in schools have changed since his Aug. 6 newsletter.

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Sherman Smith
Sherman Smith

Sherman Smith is the editor in chief of Kansas Reflector. He writes about things that powerful people don't want you to know. A two-time Kansas Press Association journalist of the year, his award-winning reporting includes stories about education, technology, foster care, voting, COVID-19, sex abuse, and access to reproductive health care. Before founding Kansas Reflector in 2020, he spent 16 years at the Topeka Capital-Journal. He graduated from Emporia State University in 2004, back when the school still valued English and journalism. He was raised in the country at the end of a dead end road in Lyon County.