Gov. Laura Kelly issues COVID-19, mask recommendations for Kansas schools

Jason Tidd
Topeka Capital-Journal
Students and staff at Holton High School were required to wear masks during the 2020-21 school year.

Kansas Gov. Laura Kelly and state public health officials are recommending universal masking indoors for all students and teachers at K-12 schools, regardless of vaccination status.

"We know our children belong in the classroom, but it’s critical that we provide Kansas school districts with support and tools they need to keep our kids safe," Kelly said in a statement. "This guidance is in line with what we have made available over the last year, but has been modified to incorporate the best information we have to fight the Delta variant.

"I encourage school districts to follow the science and use the available funds to keep their kids safe."

The governor's office and the Kansas State Department of Education are encouraging districts to apply for ELC Grant Funds. The state received $87 million to fund equipment, testing and medical staff to help prevent the spread of COVID-19 in schools.

More:How does the new CDC mask affect Kansas counties? For 80% of us, it's time to mask up.

Kansas mask guidance in schools

The mask guidance applies to all individuals ages 2 and older in indoor settings, including public transportation and school buses. State officials aren't generally recommending mask use outdoors, noting a decreased risk of transmitting the disease.

The state mask recommendations for schools matches guidance issued by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and the American Academy of Pediatrics.

"We want every student to be in the classroom this fall," Kansas Commissioner of Education Randy Watson said in a statement from the governor's office. "To ensure this happens, school districts should continue partnering with their local medical teams to implement safety protocols that protect all students and school personnel."

More:How bad is the new delta-fueled COVID-19 surge in Kansas? Here's what the numbers show.

COVID vaccine, testing strategies in schools

In addition to suggestions of mask mandates, the state recommends that schools emphasize their vaccination strategy. Districts should partner with public health officials to organize mass vaccination clinics.

The guidance includes plans for "robust COVID-19 testing strategy" involving rapid tests. Testing close contacts could reduce or eliminate quarantines for students with negative tests.

Those strategies can minimize the need for close contact to miss in-person school or extracurricular activities after exposure to a case.

Quarantines are not necessary for students who are vaccinated and don't have symptoms, the guidance states.

More:Officials have more power in COVID-19 response after judge won't pause ruling

"To ensure everyone remains safe as schools resume in August, it is key for schools and communities to work together," Lee Norman, secretary of the Kansas Department of Health and Environment, said in a statement. "We urge school districts to use the ELC resources for additional support. And, we encourage communities to continue taking precautions to mitigate the virus, including vaccination and testing.

"If individuals are not vaccinated, please wear a mask in public. If you’re feeling sick, get tested, practice social distancing and stay home."

The full guidance document issued by the governor's office on Friday is available online here.

COVID rates among children

While the Pfizer vaccine has emergency use authorization for use in children aged 12-17, the vaccination rate in that population remains low. About 34.1% of that age group in Kansas has gotten at least one dose, and about 24.3% are fully vaccinated, according to White House and CDC data as of Monday.

Both of those numbers rank in the bottom half of the country.

Federal data also show that the 5-11 and 12-17 populations in Kansas have higher positive test rates over the last than the rest of the population.

It takes several weeks from the first shot until a patient is fully vaccinated, meaning that students who get their first dose in the coming days likely would not be fully vaccinated before classes or fall sports practices start.

While public health officials have urged vaccinations, they have also supported masking up to protect those who are unvaccinated either due to choice or ineligibility. Doctors have said that it could be several months before elementary school students would be eligible.

Nathan Bahr, an infectious disease specialist at The University of Kansas Health System, said earlier this month that he supports universal masking recommendations at schools.

"To be honest, I think it’s a really good recommendation,” Bahr said. "I’m excited about it. I think it’s going to help prevent COVID spread."

"Unfortunately there is resistance to wanting to wear a mask, but it’s the right thing for our kids to keep them safe," he continued. "Man, I’m happy to hear that recommendation, and I hope it’s more widespread in the near future."

A growing number of Kansas public school districts have announced some version of a mask requirement, including Kansas City, Shawnee Mission, Manhattan and Salina.