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A School District Near Wichita Cancels Class For More Than A Week After COVID Outbreaks

A bus outside the Kansas Statehouse.
A bus at the Kansas Statehouse. Lawmakers approved a law that restricts using online learning.

The 1500-student Wellington district, south of Wichita, canceled classes less than two weeks into the school year.

WICHITA, Kansas — The Wellington school district in south-central Kansas has closed all of its public schools because of COVID-19 outbreaks less than two weeks after classes started.

An announcement posted on the district’s website and on its social media channels late Thursday said Sumner County health officials deemed three of Wellington’s six buildings as outbreak schools.

As a precaution, the district decided to close all schools until Sept. 7, the day after Labor Day. It also canceled all sports practices and school-related activities.

The district of 1,500 students had made masks optional in classrooms.

In a statement posted on the district's website Friday, Wellington Superintendent Adam Hatfield said there were at least 40 positive COVID-19 cases during the first eight days of school. Cases were highest at Eisenhower Elementary, Wellington Middle School and Wellington High School.

By Thursday, the district was testing more than 200 students a day, "so our positive numbers were rising," Hatfield said.

"Through contact tracing we realized that there were many positive cases sharing households within all of our schools. It was only a matter of time before numbers went up in all of our schools to official outbreak levels."

Sumner County Health Officer Laura Rettig said she wasn’t surprised by how quickly the virus spread. An outbreak is defined as at least five positive cases in one location.

“You’re probably going to see more schools” have COVID-19 outbreaks in coming days and weeks, she said.

“If I can predict the future, you’re probably going to see more . . . across the board have issues.”

The Wellington district is not offering any remote learning options during the closure. A state law passed earlier this year discourages online learning. It limits remote learning to 40 hours per student or schools risk losing more than half of state funding for that student.

The Kansas Association of School Boards had previously warned that the state law creates tough decisions for districts. School officials have to decide whether to hold classes during an outbreak, totally cancel school or offer online education but risk a loss of state funding.

The new law allows exceptions to the 40-hour limit for illnesses or emergencies.

Mark Tallman, of the Kansas Association of School Boards, said the state will ultimately decide what counts when it audits attendance figures.

“Then they’re going to have to determine: Was that a legitimate exception, or will the financial penalty apply?” Tallman said in an interview this week.

The Wellington district, in Sumner County, has four elementary schools, one middle school and one high school.

Officials said they will reassess the situation in September and update families via email, text alerts and the district’s website.

"It is our hope that the temporary shut down will allow the virus incubation period to run its course," the superintendent said in his statement Friday. "In the meantime, we are reviewing policy and consulting with our medical staff in order to make sure we are doing all we can to reopen schools safely on September 7th.

"This is a challenging time for our entire district," he said. "Everybody wants our kids in school. We are hoping it is only a minor setback."

Suzanne Perez reports on education for KMUW in Wichita and the Kansas News Service. You can follow her on Twitter @SuzPerezICT or emailher at perez@kmuw.org.

The Kansas News Service is a collaboration of KCUR, Kansas Public Radio, KMUW and High Plains Public Radio focused on health, the social determinants of health and their connection to public policy.

Kansas News Service stories and photos may be republished by news media at no cost with proper attribution and a link to ksnewsservice.org.

Copyright 2021 KMUW | NPR for Wichita. To see more, visit KMUW | NPR for Wichita.

Suzanne Perez
Suzanne Perez is a longtime journalist covering education and general news. Before coming to KMUW, she worked at The Wichita Eagle, where she covered schools and a variety of other topics.
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