Kansas data doesn’t reflect reality as COVID-19 rips through schools

By: and - September 7, 2021 11:32 am

Gov. Laura Kelly joins second gentleman Douglass Emhoff, U.S. education secretary Miguel Cardona and other local and state leaders for a tour of Topeka High’s vaccine clinic on Aug. 9. (Pool photo by Evert Nelson/The Capital-Journal)

TOPEKA — School districts across the state independently reported hundreds of infections of COVID-19 among students and staff in the first two weeks of school, while the state’s official ledger showed just two small outbreaks.

The Kansas Department of Health and Environment’s data on school infections is unreliable because of the difficulty in tracing sources of infections and communication between the agency and local health officials. In its most recent update, the agency’s official accounting attributed just 75 new cases to outbreaks at public schools.

The number of outbreaks is actually much higher, but nobody is attempting to tally statewide numbers. Gov. Laura Kelly last week announced a new workgroup would produce a weekly report with active outbreaks, but the governor’s office didn’t say when the first report would be released. It isn’t clear whether the report will rely on the same incomplete data.

County health departments determine the source of outbreaks, but the task is made difficult by the surge in COVID-19 cases attributed to the delta variant and restrictions imposed by the Legislature last year that allow infected residents to opt out of contact tracing. Because of widespread community transmission, it can be difficult to determine whether children who test positive at school were infected there or showed up with the virus.

Craig Barnes, division manager for community health outreach and planning at the Shawnee County Health Department, said keeping track of cases at schools is complicated. The department is able to investigate just 20% of the cases countywide.

“The large number of cases coming in both via schools and the community has made investigations and contact tracing rather difficult,” Barnes said. “There are schools that have multiple cases. However, without an epidemiological link between the cases at the physical school, we would not list this as an outbreak or cluster.”

Barnes provided a hypothetical example: “Let’s say a school basketball team had a sleepover, and from that sleepover five-plus kids were infected. These would be COVID-positive students with an epidemiological linkage. However, the exposure and linkage was outside the school setting, and as such, the cluster would be the sleepover, not the school.”

It is also possible, he said, that health officials won’t recognize the link between cases and a school until much later.

KDHE provides a list of outbreaks involving five or more people within the past 14 days, and updates the list on Wednesdays. The only schools to show up on the list in recent weeks are Mount Olive Lutheran School in Overland Park, with eight cases, and USD 405 Central Elementary School in Lyons, with six cases.

“We also see the numerous news reports of entire classrooms being quarantined and schools closing,” said Matt Lara, spokesman for KDHE. “When we see these, we reach out to local health departments to find out if there is an active outbreak that we have not been notified about. Again, KDHE relies on communication and cooperation between students, teachers, staff, parents, schools and the local health departments to identify these outbreaks.”

The Wellington school district closed schools from Aug. 27 until Tuesday after more than 40 students and staff members tested positive in the first eight days of school. The Sumner County Health Department recommended closing after tracing three separate outbreaks of infections to district schools.

The Valley Center school district said 45 students and staff had tested positive for COVID-19 as of Sept. 1, up from eight a week before, the Ark Valley News reported.

Last week, the Andover school district imposed a mask mandate at public schools after 38 students tested positive for the virus, up from 19 the previous week, KWCH-TV reported.

In the Wichita school district, 194 students and 51 staff tested positive before Aug. 23, when the school board required students to wear masks. The district had 1,612 students in quarantine at that time, the Wichita Eagle reported.

In Garden City, the school district had seven cases in the first week of school, 15 the following week, and 13 on Aug. 23 alone, the Garden City Telegram reported.

In the Gardner Edgerton school district, 50 students and staff tested positive for the virus, and 200 students had to be quarantined, the Kansas City Star reported.

The Auburn-Washburn school district in Shawnee County had 47 students and three staff members test positive in the first week of school, requiring 163 students and four staff members to be quarantined, the Topeka Capital-Journal reported.

Mulvane and Ark City schools boards imposed mask mandates last week in response to an increase in the number of cases, KAKE-TV reported.

In the Turner school district in Kansas City, Kansas, 23 students and four staff members tested positive in the first week of class.

Mark Tallman, associate executive director of the Kansas Association of School Boards, said schools prepared for the school year with the hope of returning to normal. School officials didn’t want to over-respond to the rising threat of the delta variant, he said.

“No one wants to go back to mandates. No one wants to have kids in quarantine. No one wants to think about closing schools,” Tallman said. “The idea is to live as close to normal as possible to get the best possible environment.”

The governor said the new Safer Classrooms Workgroup would bring together pediatricians, family physicians, school nurses, pharmacists, school psychologists, and other health professionals to meet weekly. The group will produce a report to serve as a resource for schools, parents, media and policymakers.

The report will provide a list of active outbreaks at schools, as well as timely information about testing and masking policies, including best practices; information about vaccination clinics; and county-level data on youth vaccination status, hospitalizations, cases and deaths.

Kelly “has a crackerjack team of physicians and epidemiologist that are studying the outbreak county by county and looking at transmission in schools and how we can keep schools open,” said Kansas education commissioner Randy Watson. “That really is the key. Because everyone’s worried if this trends like last year as we get into the winter months, it may get worse. We hope not.

“So I know that the simple answer is if we can vaccinate and we can mask, we can test, we can start to diminish it. But I think that group’s going to look at a lot of things.”

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Sherman Smith
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.

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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.

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