Kansas students four times as likely to get COVID-19 at schools without mask requirement

Education commissioner wants schools to ‘double down’ on vaccinations to avoid surge in cases

By: - October 27, 2021 3:25 pm

A 12-year-old student receives a COVID-19 vaccine during a clinic in August at Topeka High School. The Safer Classrooms Workgroup wants schools to encourage younger kids to get vaccinated as soon as federal regulators provide a green light. (Pool photo by Evert Nelson/The Capital-Journal)

TOPEKA — Kansas public schools without a mask mandate report COVID-19 illnesses at more than four times the rate of schools where a face covering is required.

The numbers of cases traced to COVID-19 outbreaks at schools were included in an update Wednesday from a panel of medical professionals and administrators responsible for providing guidance to school districts and parents. The Safer Classrooms Workgroup reported 462 new cases of COVID-19 among students in 88 district in the past week.

Marci Nielsen, chief COVID-19 coordination adviser to Gov. Laura Kelly, said schools that encourage but don’t require masks or have no mask policy have reported 218 cases per 100,000 students from outbreaks connected to those schools. For schools where a mask is required, the case rate is 47.

“When we require masks, we see fewer outbreaks, both in schools and we see fewer kids impacted,” Nielsen said. “And the disparity between those schools that don’t require a mask and do continues to grow.”

The Kansas Department for Health and Environment on Wednesday reported 103 new deaths from COVID-19 statewide, and 2,437 new cases. There were 11 children hospitalized with the virus on Tuesday, down from a high of 49 on Sept. 20.

The agency has recorded 6,345 deaths since the start of the pandemic, including two children younger than 10 and three between the ages of 10 and 17.

Randy Watson, the state education commissioner, said schools should focus their attention on getting younger students vaccinated after federal regulators authorize the Pfizer vaccine for kids as young as 5. That decision is expected next week.

“I want to double down on the idea of vaccinations,” Watson said, which could help avoid “any potential surge in the future.”

Kansas lags behind the national average for fully vaccinated kids and adults. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention report that 62.9% of Kansans ages 12 and older are fully vaccinated. Nationally, 77.8% of the age group is fully vaccinated.

Kristie Clark, president of the Kansas chapter of the American Academy of Pediatrics, said people need to make decisions about whether to get the vaccine based on conversations with their primary care physician, not information from social media.

“If you get this virus, Facebook is not going to come intubate you,” Clark said. “It’s going to be a doctor doing it.”

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Sherman Smith
Sherman Smith

Sherman Smith is the 2021 and 2022 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. He is a lifelong Kansan.