Health care advocates tie decrease in school COVID-19 clusters to increase in masking

By: - October 15, 2021 8:30 am

Outbreaks in Kansas schools continue to decrease and health care advocates on the governor’s Safer Classrooms Workgroup are tying this improvement to better masking and testing policies in place across the state (Screen capture of Gov. Laura Kelly Youtube)

TOPEKA — With flu season fast approaching, a panel of education and health care advocates are touting the effect school masking policies have had on an apparent decrease in outbreaks in the classroom.

Despite adding 10 new school clusters, the number of active outbreaks has dropped from 68 last week to 56 this week. The Kansas Department of Health and Environment is reporting 546 cases connected to these ongoing clusters.

Circle Towanda Intermediate School in Butler County currently has the most COVID-19 cases within the last 14 days, with 20. Hillsboro Elementary School in Marion County and Yates Center Middle School in Woodson County both reported 12 cases in the past two weeks.

Marci Nielsen, chief adviser to the governor for COVID-19 coordination, pointed to an increase in the number of school districts implementing masking policies.

“It is important for us to understand whether masks, at the end of the day, prevent outbreaks in schools,” Nielsen said. “These trends continue to show that in Kansas, when we require masks, we see fewer outbreaks impacting fewer students.”

Nielsen shared Wednesday with the governor’s Safer Classroom Workgroup that of those districts with an active outbreak, 37% had a mask requirement. Those with no mandate or unknown policies had triple the number of cases per capita.

Nielsen reported Kansas has made many strides in the last month, as case numbers across the state tail off. Since Monday, KDHE has recorded 2,121 new cases, nine new deaths and 91 hospitalizations.

Pediatric numbers appear to be improving but school-aged children remain at the highest risk of contracting COVID-19, Nielsen said.

As the weather gets colder, panel members such as state education commissioner Randy Watson are on guard for another surge this fall or winter. Watson praised KDHE’s testing protocol, which continues to attract participating districts.

However, 22% of public and private schools have expressed no interest. Watson said improving this number could prove pivotal to keeping children in school during the winter.

“Last winter was a brutal winter, and we’re hoping that that doesn’t occur again,” he said. “We have less resistance to voluntary testing because people want to be in school and they want to participate in those activities.”

Kimber Kasitz, the head nurse for Wichita Public Schools, said being back in schools is improving not only academic success but students’ social-emotional well-being. During the pandemic, she saw an increase in the number of students coping with mental health issues — from depression to anxiety to suicidal thoughts.

Returning to in-person learning has alleviated some of these concerns, Kasitz said, while endorsing school participation in the state-funded testing strategies. Any mitigation effort that reduces the amount of time students must spend isolated from one another goes a long way, she said.

“It’s been huge to see the numbers of kids that are able to be back at in-school learning but also being able to get those peer relationships back that they missed out on over the last couple of years,” Kasitz said.

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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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