TOPEKA, Kan. (AP) - Kansas schools will be allowed to reopen in mid-August after Republican officials on Wednesday again thwarted a plan from Democratic Gov. Laura Kelly aimed at reversing a resurgence in reported coronavirus cases.
The GOP-controlled State Board of Education on Wednesday voted 5-5 and rejected a proposal from Kelly to delay the restart of K-12 classes for three weeks until after Labor Day. Decisions on when school buildings reopen will be left to the state’s 286 local elected boards.
Republican officials and conservatives outside state government have argued that it’s inappropriate for Kelly to impose “one size fits all” pandemic measures. Top Republicans in the GOP-controlled Legislature made similar arguments for weeks to pressure Kelly into lifting statewide restrictions on businesses and public gathering, which she did May 26.
The growth in Kansas’ reported coronavirus cases had bottomed out in early June but began climbing again until the state recently saw its worst spikes of the pandemic. Reported cases have more than doubled in six weeks, exceeding 24,000 as of Wednesday, with more than 300 COVID-19-related deaths.
Kelly said in a statement that its vote “puts our students, faculty, their families and our economy at risk.” The state’s top public health official, Dr. Lee Norman, warned the board that children can be ”very active disease spreaders.”
“A school cannot be a safe island in an unsafe community where there is a marked increase in the number of cases,” Norman said.
The board had an emergency Zoom meeting. Republican member Jim Porter, of Fredonia, who supported Kelly’s order, suggested it was ironic to debate the wisdom of reopening schools “from the comfort and safety of our own homes.”
The board’s action prevents Kelly from issuing an executive order setting Sept. 9 as the start of classes for both public schools and private ones that are accredited by the state. The governor already had ordered them to have students and staff wear masks and have them checked daily for fever, and those mandates still stand.
Kansas also has a long tradition of letting local school districts set their own schedules and decide what’s taught and how their buildings operate. The state board approved 1,100 pages of guidelines for reopening schools last week but did not impose mandates.
As of Wednesday, coronavirus cases had been reported in all 105 of the state’s counties except for two sparsely populated rural ones in western Kansas, Rawlins and Wallace counties. But infection rates vary widely, with only 15 counties above the state’s figure of 8.27 reported cases for every 1,000 residents and 67 with fewer than 4 for every 1,000 residents.
“Our state is extremely diverse,” Senate President Susan Wagle, a Wichita Republican, said after the board’s vote. “The democratic process and engagement from many Kansans prevailed today.”
Wagle and the small-government, free-market Kansas Policy Institute think tank had publicly urged people to lobby the board to reject Kelly’s order. Board members said they received thousands of calls and emails from all points of view.
Republicans have an 8-2 board majority on the board and Kelly needed four GOP votes to prevail. Her plan received three.
The board’s vote Wednesday was required under a state law enacted last month as a compromise between Kelly and GOP lawmakers who pushed to curb her power.
Many Republicans have argued that Kelly was too slow to reopen the state’s economy after locking it down for five weeks starting in late March. Some also were critical when she ordered all K-12 school buildings closed in mid-March for the rest of the last school year.
Educators agree that children benefit from interacting with each other and that in-person classes generally are better for instruction than online classes.
Board member Michelle Dombrosky, an Olathe Republican who opposed Kelly’s order, suggested that delaying the start of the new school year would hurt the “least fortunate” students most.
“We’re giving parents the choices,” she said. “This needs to be a local decision.”
But it wasn’t clear that all local districts could be ready to reopen schools in mid-August. Five superintendents in Johnson County in the Kansas City area, the state’s most populous county, urged the state board to delay the start of fall classes given “the complexity of these issues” related to the pandemic.
“You have various constituencies, parents and teachers unions and others, who have interests in the decisions,” said David Smith, a spokesman for one the Shawnee Mission district in Johnson County. “Now, we are going to have to wrestle with all of those interests and figure out, given the fact that we don’t have an order, what makes the most sense.”
The state health department reported Wednesday that Kansas has had 24,104 confirmed coronavirus cases since the pandemic began, which was an increase of 770, or 3.3%, since Monday. It also reported one additional COVID-19-related fatality since then, raising the state’s death toll to 308, though Johns Hopkins University pegs that figure at 317.
“I want to be on the right side of history on this one,” said board member Ann Mah, a Topeka Democrat who supported the governor’s proposed delay.
Also contributing was Andy Tsubasa Field.
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