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Four Kansas school districts temporarily close as COVID-19 outbreaks hit 31 schools

TOPEKA — Kansas education commissioner Randy Watson says at least 31 Kansas schools are reporting outbreaks of COVID-19, forcing more school districts to close temporarily.

COVID-19 cases are up dramatically in school-age children compared to last school year as school districts grapple with masking policies, testing strategies and vaccinations for eligible students, Watson said. Some schools are facing teacher and substitute shortages from the virus.

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The largest active outbreak is 22 cases at Rock Creek School in Pottawatomie County. Harvey County has two active outbreaks, with 14 new cases at Hesston Middle School and 10 at Halstead High School.

Neither school district requires masking. Both Rock Creek and Hesston have a testing strategy in place, while Halsted High School does not.

“We have four school districts that, so far, have shut down temporarily, at least some grades within their school,” Watson said. “They will be making up that time because they decided not to go remote. That’s certainly doable and they’re adding on minutes to the day. But if they have to do that again two or three times, it’s probably not going to be doable.”

Those school districts that shut down have done so for anywhere from three or four days to two weeks. None has chosen to go remote, partly in response to new restrictions on remote learning passed by the Kansas Legislature earlier this year.

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

Watson said many schools are opting to use testing strategies offered by the Kansas Department of Health and Environment to avoid potential closures. Those participating in the Kansas K-12 Stay Positive Test Negative initiative will receive federal pandemic relief aid to fund their testing plans.

Of the 31 schools with active outbreaks, 14 have a testing strategy in place. Only four of these schools require masking, two require it for some students and five encourage masking. Thirteen of the schools did not respond to an inquiry from the Kansas State Department of Education.

County vaccination rates for eligible youths also vary among the outbreak locations, although only six schools, located in Douglas, Johnson, Shawnee and Wyandotte counties, are at or above the statewide rate of 47%. The national average is 54.6% for those ages 12 to 17.

In late August, Wellington Unified School District 353 became the first district to shut down classes and extracurriculars because of the outbreaks after 40 positive cases in the first eight days.

“Through contact tracing we realized that there were many positive cases sharing households within all of our schools,” said Wellington superintendent Adam Hatfield. “It was only a matter of time before numbers went up in all of our schools to official outbreak levels. So, the decision was made to temporarily shut down all schools.”

Wellington reopened school Sept. 7 with masks required for all students, staff and visitors.

Rural Vista School District, located in Hope and White City cancelled all classes and activities from Sept. 3 to Sept. 13. St. John-Hudson School District announced Sunday that all facilities would be closed from Sept. 13-17 because of rising case numbers and a shortage of staff and available substitute teachers. 

The plan is to resume classes Sept. 20 with modified safety guidelines.

“With the rise in Covid numbers in our staff and student population, as well as in our county, the board was forced to make adjustments,” the district said in a Facebook post Tuesday. “One of those adjustments includes the requirement to wear masks while case numbers are high.”

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

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