News Briefs

Conflict persists about Gov. Laura Kelly’s power to impose school health orders

By: - July 24, 2020 8:52 am
House Majority Leader Dan Hawkins, center, R-Wichita, challenged the legality of Gov. Laura Kelly's opinion that county commissions couldn't reject her executive order mandating that all students, employees and visitors to public and private schools wear a mask to reduce potential of spreading COVID-19. (Tim Carpenter/Kansas Reflector)

House Majority Leader Dan Hawkins, center, R-Wichita, challenged the legality of Gov. Laura Kelly’s opinion that county commissions couldn’t reject her executive order mandating that all students, employees and visitors to public and private schools wear a mask to reduce potential of spreading COVID-19. (Tim Carpenter/Kansas Reflector)

TOPEKA – Kansas Republicans object to Gov. Laura Kelly’s executive order requiring all students, faculty, staff and visitors to wear masks in public and private K-12 schools in an attempt to deter spread of the coronavirus.

House Majority Leader Dan Hawkins, R-Wichita, and Attorney General Derek Schmidt said county commissions and local school boards had authority to nix the mask mandate covering more than 500,000 students across the state. In their view, House Bill 2016 adopted during a special legislative session in June gave county commissions broad opt-out powers.

Kelly said Executive Order 20-59 issued Monday was the domain of local school boards, not county commissions. Her mandate included the wearing of masks at schools, with exemptions for medical reasons and for activities that prevent wearing a mask. The order also requires six-foot social distancing when possible, hourly use of hand sanitizer and daily temperature checks.

Wearing of masks in public is not universally welcomed in Kansas, despite evidence masks inhibit spread of the virus that has infected 24,000, hospitalized 1,500 and killed 300 residents of the state.

Hawkins, who said he believed Kelly’s mask order was unnecessary, has been among state legislators who has declined to wear a mask to public meetings at the Capitol during the pandemic.

“You said early on that counties cannot be less restrictive on this order,” Hawkins said. “I don’t think that flies well in the face of (House Bill) 2016.”

Kelly said the executive order regarding school health measures related to COVID-109 was beyond reach of the state’s 105 county commissions.

“It is my understanding this executive order falls within the statute. Issuing executive orders to school districts is still in my purview,” the governor said.

Attorney General Derek Schmidt told the Associated Press that school districts and county commissions could exempt K-12 schools from the governor’s mitigation rules. The new state law gave county commissions that power and the state constitution provided school districts that influence, he said.

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Tim Carpenter
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.

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