As COVID-19 clusters in Kansas schools increase, safety panel ramps up mitigation efforts

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TOPEKA — The Kansas Department of Health and Environment is reporting a new death related to an active school COVID-19 cluster.

This comes just one week after education commissioner Randy Watson announced the death of a middle school student from COVID-19. Over the past week, KDHE has logged 13 new school clusters, bringing the active total to 79, and 648 cases connected to those outbreaks.

KDHE’s cluster summary does not indicate whether the death was a student or in what school district it occurred.

Education-related clusters reported Wednesday include Wichita’s the Independent Lower School with 30 cases, Anthony Elementary School’s fifth grade with 13 cases and Newton High School in Harvey County with five cases.

While positive case rates appear to be declining to levels not seen since July, members of the Governor’s Safer Classrooms Workgroup are working to reverse high positivity rates seen nationwide among school-aged children through testing, masking and vaccinations.

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

“I’ve done research in other areas outside of COVID, and people need to hear the same message sometimes six to seven times before they have any kind of behavior change,” said Stephanie Kuhlmann, pediatric hospital division director at Wesley Children’s Hospital and co-chair of the panel. “We’ve got to work together unitedly to get those same consistent messages out.”

KDHE reported 2,481 new cases, 27 new deaths and 98 new hospitalizations since Monday. In the past week, KDHE has reported 7,003 new cases, down from 8,235 in the previous week.

Marci Nielsen, chief adviser to the governor for COVID-19 coordination, shared these updated COVID-19 metrics and more on school districts with the workgroup Wednesday. She reported that of the 72 active clusters, 21 school districts required masks, 23 encouraged mask use or had no policy, and 28 were unresponsive. 

A recent Centers for Disease Control and Prevention study looking at pediatric COVID-19 cases in 520 counties across the country showed those without school mask requirements saw the daily number of COVID cases spike when school began. 

“There’s been debate about whether masks work in schools or don’t work in schools,” Nielsen said. “We’ve long been masking in health care settings, so we know that masks are effective, but we didn’t have a lot of data around masks in schools.”

During the meeting, stakeholders discussed the expected rollout of COVID-19 vaccinations for children ages 5 to 11. There are about 265,000 children in that age range in Kansas, and state epidemiologist Farah Ahmed said she expects 75,000 to be vaccinated from the expected rollout in November to January of next year.

In the meantime, Ahmed and education officials are encouraging schools to take precautionary measures, such as testing. Through the Kansas K-12 Stay Positive Test Negative initiative, KDHE is offering funding and assistance in creating a flexible testing program for each school district.


To date, 65% of school districts have drafted or submitted a testing strategy to KDHE under the K-12 Stay Positive Test Negative initiative, 11% are interested but yet to act, 13% expressed no interest and 11% have yet to respond to the department.

KSDE commissioner Randy Watson said superintendents who are working with the health department have been impressed with the number of school days saved. For example, Rock Creek Schools estimates their plan has saved a combined 782 quarantine days.

“I think it shows a voluntary way where, if there is an outbreak in a school, that we can rapid test and if you are negative, we can keep you in school with little disruption,” Watson said. “It’s a home run.”

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: Follow Kansas Reflector on Facebook and Twitter.

More coverage: COVID-19 in K-12


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