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School safety panel aims to keep kids in school while reducing COVID-19 outbreaks

TOPEKA — Gov. Laura Kelly is urging a new COVID-19 school safety workgroup to focus on policies that will not only keep Kansas children and staff healthy but in the classroom, after hundreds of infections were reported in school districts across the state.

Kelly established the Safer Classrooms Workgroup as outbreaks and clusters forced some schools to temporarily close or consider a short-term return to remote learning. The panel includes pediatricians, county health officials, school nurses and education officials, among other community stakeholders.

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The governor hoped these skill sets and diverse points of view would bring forth important policy ideas to keep more Kansas schools open.

“We’ve got to do everything we can to keep our kids and our teachers and our staff safe, but it’s also critical that we keep our kids in school … and prevent more districts from having to close,” Kelly said, “Not only for their academic education, but also to give them the opportunity to develop those critical psychosocial skills that they’re going to need to successfully navigate the world.”

Compared with this time last year, the number of cases and outbreaks experienced in schools across the state is much higher, said Kansas education commissioner Randy Watson. With remote options limited by new laws passed by the state Legislature earlier this year, he said the panel should endeavor to find policies that allow flexibility for school administrators.

“What I see is a lot of concern from school administrators and school teachers on the number of mitigation aspects that are being taken on a daily basis to keep school in session,” Watson said. “I get to look at a lot of principals, superintendents, teachers, look in their eyes. And like health professionals they are tired as they figure out how we test, how do we keep kids in school, what’s the best practice when there’s an outbreak. And how are we going to do that work?”

The panel will meet weekly to speak with educators, parents and advocates about how schools and school districts are coping with and mitigating the spread of COVID-19. Their focus will be on three main tools in the classroom — testing, masking and vaccinations.

Each week, the group plans to provide an update on school safety including data on those three key methods.

Click here to see the latest COVID-19 stats for Lawrence, the Lawrence school district, and Douglas County on the Times’ dashboard.

In the update this week, Marci Nielsen, chief adviser to the governor for COVID-19 coordination, reported Kansas currently trails the national vaccination rate for eligible students ages 12 to 17. Just more than 47% of Kansans in that age group are fully vaccinated, short of 54.6% nationwide.

Only Douglas County, at 64%; Johnson County, at 61%; and Riley County, at 61%, exceeded the national rate.

About 12% of state school districts currently require masks, while 3% require them for some but not all students, 24% encourage mask use and 7% have no requirement. 54% of school districts did not respond to the survey.

Nielsen also provided data from the Kansas Department of Health and Environment’s K-12 Stay Positive Test Negative initiative. The effort is intended to support school districts with $89 million in pandemic relief aid for the design and implementation of three testing strategies.

Thus far, only 12% of schools indicated no interest, and 11% have not responded. Of the 36 schools that turned down funding, 24 were in the western half of the state.

Farah Ahmed, the state epidemiologist for KDHE, said rather than provide schools with a bucket of available money, these plans would provide a structure

“Our mission was really to come up with testing plans that could support districts so that they could reduce outbreaks, they could minimize absenteeism from illness, and they could keep kids in person learning at school,” Ahmed said. “They could take the plans as they are, they could take bits and pieces of the plans, or they can completely come up with their own strategies.”

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The panel will collaborate with other groups promoting school safety during the pandemic, including KDHE, the Kansas State Department of Education and the Kansas COVID Workgroup for Kids.

The last of those was founded in May 2020 to address the “physical, social and psychological impacts on children as a result of the pandemic.” KCWK provided guidance to school districts on best practices to ensure the safety of students and staff.

Now, the co-chairs of that group will serve on the state school safety panel and hope to integrate lessons learned.

“Let’s take the science, let’s take the data and let’s try to give the best recommendations we can give because everybody out there is truly just trying to do their best for the kids,” said Jennifer Bacani McKenney, a family physician, Wilson County Health Officer and KCWK co-chair. “If we can help in some way to make that work easier so we have a unified message, then that’s the help that we want to be as we move forward.”

Kansas Reflector is part of States Newsroom, a network of news bureaus supported by grants and a coalition of donors as a 501c(3) public charity. Kansas Reflector maintains editorial independence. Contact Editor Sherman Smith for questions: info@kansasreflector.com. Follow Kansas Reflector on Facebook and Twitter.

More coverage: COVID-19 in K-12

School safety panel aims to keep kids in school while reducing COVID-19 outbreaks

Gov. Laura Kelly is urging a new COVID-19 school safety workgroup to focus on policies that will not only keep Kansas children and staff healthy but in the classroom, after hundreds of infections were reported in school districts across the state.

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