Renewed stress on school districts as Delta variant surges

Published: Jul. 29, 2021 at 12:13 AM CDT
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WICHITA, Kan. (KWCH) - Governor Laura Kelly announced Wednesday that all state employees would be required to wear masks, regardless of their vaccination status, and that masks would be required in all state buildings.

She also said the state would also be releasing guidance for schools later this week. The latest order comes amid the CDC’s recommendation that masks be worn by indoors by everyone whether or not they’ve been vaccinated.

But when it comes to schools in Kansas, the decision is left up to each district as they face the surge of the Delta variant spreading among the unvaccinated and infections that are trending younger.

“I think we all know that this is a big elephant in the room,” said Betty Arnold, KSDE Board of Education member for District 8.

It’s been hard to keep up, and schools are right there with everyone else.

“Situation is very fluid. A month ago, we were talking about that we’re vaccinated, we’re safe being unmasked indoors,” said KSDE Board of Education Chair Jim Porter. “Now, we’re being told that’s not the case. That the variant is more virulent than otherwise known before. It’s confusion, and it’s going to impact school districts.”

Arnold and Porter are both members of the Kansas State Board of Education (KSDE).

Porter said in a meeting with superintendents, he’s been hearing the concern. Arnold attended a recent Wichita school board meeting where parents addressed their concerns with board members.

“There are parents, that before we talk about school funding before we talk about seat time, I want to know that my child is safe,” said Arnold.

At next month’s state BOE meeting, the Kansas State Department of Education’s guidance for schools will be reviewed. That is scheduled to happen in two weeks. Arnold and Porter said the state’s constitution makes clear what to do from there. These kinds of policy decisions are left up to local boards.

“Constitutionally, the way it’s set up, the control of local schools is under the guise of their school board members, and of course, the state is there to provide guidelines and general direction,” said Arnold.

“There are overarching things like teacher licenser, accreditation of school districts and numerous other things that are in fact our sole responsibility, but decisions in what happens in a local school district about whether you have school, the calendar of that school, our belief is constitutionally given to the elected board members of each individual school district,” Porter said.

In making those decisions, Porter said it means also benefiting from relying on the local resources.

“You have to make decisions based on what’s best for your community based on science and health department recommendations,” he said.

Some schools, including Salina this week, have already decided to mask. Other districts have released their guidance that leaves masks optional. Trying to make these decisions put lots of pressure on these boards, as they also face some pushback.

“The fact that it’s politicized, and we have a certain portion who believes this is harmless, but we have others that feel it’s a severe threat,” Arnold said.

“I have never seen people more stressed than they are right now, and I’m talking about everybody (in schools). I’m talking... these decisions weigh on local school board members; this is not part of their training,” said Porter.

Both Arnold and Porter said what is most important to them is that everyone in school feels healthy and safe.

“Parents have a right to be concerned about the safety of their child.” Arnold said, “We’re talking not only about our students, we’re talking about our teacher and all the other workers that go to make up our educational institution. There’s a great concern about all of them.”

“I have a nine-year-old granddaughter who is medically fragile,” said Porter. “I personally am concerned, and she goes to school in a Kansas school. The school that she went to did an excellent job last year.”

At the end of last school year, districts also had to deal with the time-consuming process of addressing grievances brought by parents upset with the mask orders.

It was part of the updated Kansas Emergency Management Act passed earlier this year that requires districts to hear these claims expedited.

To start this school year, that will not be in place.

With the emergency declaration expiring at the end of June, the measure is no longer in place. A Johnson County judge, this month, also struck down the law saying it was unconstitutional because it doesn’t provide due process to local government units.

It is currently being appealed to the Kansas Supreme Court.

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