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Expect To See More Masks And Occasional Closures As Kansas Reopens Schools

Elementary school students in Kansas won't be expected to wear masks unless they've been sent to the nurse with COVID-19 symptoms. Students older than 12 will have to wear masks, and the Kansas plan to reopen schools calls for having them help make masks and plexiglass barriers.
U.S. Department of Defense
Elementary school students in Kansas won't be asked to wear masks unless they've been sent to the nurse with COVID-19 symptoms. Students older than 12 should to wear masks, and the Kansas plan to reopen schools calls for having them help make masks and plexiglass barriers.

UPDATED, 10:50 a.m. Wednesday — Middle and high school students in Kansas should wear face masks in schools next year, and buildings will be closed for a cleaning anytime someone tests positive for the coronavirus.

Those recommendations and others are in a 1,100-page guide the Kansas State Board of Education approved Wednesday, ahead of an afternoon announcement from Gov. Laura Kelly.

Education Commissioner Randy Watson said Tuesday support for reopening schools has ebbed as coronavirus cases in Kansas have increased. A day earlier, the Kansas Department of Health and Environment reported another 1,447 positive COVID-19 tests.

“There was a time when it was almost, ‘Get back to school, open school, open school,’” Watson said. “We still have that, but as we’ve seen the wave fairly recently in other states — California, Florida and Texas in particular — and in our own state, it’s become, ‘Please don’t open schools; we’ve got to have it safe.’”

Watson said decisions about when and how to reopen schools will be made locally as the coronavirus is spreading much faster in populous Wyandotte, Johnson and Sedgwick counties than it is in small, rural communities.

He added that all Kansas school districts will need a plan for what happens when a confirmed case or an outbreak occurs.

Here are five takeaways from the Kansas plan to reopen schools.

1) Districts should prioritize bringing back elementary school students.

Although all Kansas schools are encouraged to work toward reopening, the report acknowledges that older students — middle and high schoolers — are more likely than younger students to spread the coronavirus. Many child care facilities that serve young children have been able to reopen safely, while outbreaks have been reported at summer camps for teenagers.

Districts that serve students in elementary, middle and high school in the same building should keep the grade levels separate as much as possible. Younger students will not be expected to wear face masks (unless required by a state or county order), but students older than 12 who face a greater risk of infection will. Teachers and staff should also wear masks or face shields. Students with special needs who cannot wear masks won't have to.

However, Kansas Deputy Health Secretary Ashley Goss said that schools where there aren't many coronavirus cases may decide to open normally next month.

"They may or may not wear masks," Goss said. "I hope they do."

2) School could be held off-site in some communities.

Watson directed school administrators to consider moving classes to other venues that are not being used because of the pandemic.

“Look at all the facilities that can house a classroom — churches, community buildings, Century II in Wichita,” a performing arts facility, Watson said. “One of the things you’ll want to consider is starting the year spread out.”

Schools can also use those alternative spaces if classrooms or buildings have to close for deep cleaning.

3) Parents, prepare to track what your child did online all day.

The “responsible adult” overseeing remote learning in hybrid or virtual models will have to report how long students logged in and what classes they worked on.

The logs will be used to track the attendance of students who aren’t in school every day.

Several board members expressed concern that this requirement will be too cumbersome.

“Not everybody’s responsible, and not everybody’s going to turn it in,” said board member Jim Porter, who represents southeast Kansas.

But unless state lawmakers waive the statute requiring a minimum of 1,116 hours of instruction (as they did in the spring), Kansas families will have to fill out daily or weekly learning logs.

4) Out-of-school lunch won’t be free for everyone.

When Kelly closed school buildings in March, districts had to figure out how to continue providing meals for students. The United States Department of Agriculture waived some of its rules so that all students could pick up these meals, regardless of whether they normally qualify for free meals at school.

Moving forward, if schools have to close again, only students who are eligible for free or reduced-price lunch will be able to access free meal distribution. Other students can still pick up meals, but they’ll have to pay for them which could be a problem for newly-eligible families and families who are uncomfortable admitting that they need help paying for meals. Feeding America estimates child food insecurity in Kansas will increase by 47.6% due to the pandemic, per the Kansas plan to reopen schools.

5) Quarantines are likely for teachers, staff, students and families throughout the school year.

Whenever someone tests positive for COVID-19, the school or parts of the school will have to close for cleaning. Anyone who had close contact with the infected individual — within six feet for more than 10 minutes — will be required to quarantine for 14 days.

Household members, including siblings in other grades, will be expected to quarantine for even longer until the infected individual has been symptom-free for 14 days.

Watson said there is federal protection for school employees who have to quarantine, including 80 hours of paid sick leave, and state education officials are working with the Kansas National Education Association and the Kansas School Boards Association to figure out how the quarantines will work in practice.

“We’re working on how we can go about making sure that employees of any type, including food service, are not only respected, but that their leave is respected,” Watson said. “We have to take care of the people who take care of the kids.”

But teachers still have questions that aren’t addressed in the guide, like what happens if they’re forced to quarantine more than once during the school year.

The Kansas State Board of Education will vote on the guide Wednesday.

Elle Moxley covered education for KCUR.
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