Health care advocates tie decrease in school COVID-19 clusters to increase in masking

by Noah Taborda, Kansas Reflector

Topeka — With flu season fast approaching, a panel of education and health care advocates are touting the effect school masking policies have had on an apparent decrease in outbreaks in the classroom.

Despite adding 10 new school clusters, the number of active outbreaks has dropped from 68 last week to 56 this week. The Kansas Department of Health and Environment is reporting 546 cases connected to these ongoing clusters.

Circle Towanda Intermediate School in Butler County currently has the most COVID-19 cases within the last 14 days, with 20. Hillsboro Elementary School in Marion County and Yates Center Middle School in Woodson County both reported 12 cases in the past two weeks.

Marci Nielsen, chief adviser to the governor for COVID-19 coordination, pointed to an increase in the number of school districts implementing masking policies.

“It is important for us to understand whether masks, at the end of the day, prevent outbreaks in schools,” Nielsen said. “These trends continue to show that in Kansas, when we require masks, we see fewer outbreaks impacting fewer students.”

Nielsen shared Wednesday with the governor’s Safer Classroom Workgroup that of those districts with an active outbreak, 37% had a mask requirement. Those with no mandate or unknown policies had triple the number of cases per capita.

Nielsen reported Kansas has made many strides in the last month, as case numbers across the state tail off. Since Monday, KDHE has recorded 2,121 new cases, nine new deaths and 91 hospitalizations.

Pediatric numbers appear to be improving but school-aged children remain at the highest risk of contracting COVID-19, Nielsen said.

As the weather gets colder, panel members such as state education commissioner Randy Watson are on guard for another surge this fall or winter. Watson praised KDHE’s testing protocol, which continues to attract participating districts.

However, 22% of public and private schools have expressed no interest. Watson said improving this number could prove pivotal to keeping children in school during the winter.

“Last winter was a brutal winter, and we’re hoping that that doesn’t occur again,” he said. “We have less resistance to voluntary testing because people want to be in school and they want to participate in those activities.”

Kimber Kasitz, the head nurse for Wichita Public Schools, said being back in schools is improving not only academic success but students’ social-emotional well-being. During the pandemic, she saw an increase in the number of students coping with mental health issues — from depression to anxiety to suicidal thoughts.

Returning to in-person learning has alleviated some of these concerns, Kasitz said, while endorsing school participation in the state-funded testing strategies. Any mitigation effort that reduces the amount of time students must spend isolated from one another goes a long way, she said.

“It’s been huge to see the numbers of kids that are able to be back at in-school learning but also being able to get those peer relationships back that they missed out on over the last couple of years,” Kasitz said.

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KCK school board approves vaccination and testing policy

A policy on vaccinations and testing for staff and volunteers was approved at the Tuesday night, Oct. 12, Kansas City, Kansas, Board of Education meeting.

Under the policy approved Tuesday night, staff and on-site volunteers will be “highly encouraged” to get vaccinated against COVID-19 on or before Dec. 3.

The date was extended from a proposal that was approved at an earlier meeting. It was the third reading for the policy. The Dec. 3 date for vaccinations to be on file is a little later than the original proposal.

Those who don’t have proof of full vaccination, which is two shots of Pfizer or Moderna, or one shot of Johnson and Johnson COVID vaccine, on file by Dec. 3 would be required to participate in weekly COVID-19 testing, according to the policy.

Those who do not comply with the policy would be subject to the district’s progressive discipline policy, administrators said. It starts with a verbal warning, then goes to a written warning and through more steps, according to the district’s administrator guide and its negotiated agreement.

All staff who provide proof of vaccination would receive five additional sick leave days to their 2021-2022 school year contract under the new policy.

A maximum of 14 sick days would be covered if a staff member is out sick with COVID-19 from a work exposure, according to the new policy.

Testing would be held at each school site and at other sites in the district, according to Stephen Linkous, chief of staff.

He said pilot testing would be held at specific sites prior to the system-wide rollout. That rollout would be the week of Dec. 6.

He said test results should be available within about 24 hours. Student athletes also would be tested weekly under the policy.

The vote was 6-1, with board member Wanda Paige voting no.

Paige said she supported stronger language mandating the COVID vaccinations instead of “highly encouraging” them. It is a public health issue, and staff should be required to get the COVID vaccinations, she believes.

According to Linkous, some principals came forward to request that if a staff member receives five days of sick leave but doesn’t use them, that they could be reimbursed at $750, or $150 a day, if they don’t use the sick days.

The board discussed the idea, but Dr. Stacy Yeager, a board member, said she was concerned about the $1.5 million cost of that part of the program.

She said maybe the district could consider reducing those days from five to two or three days for reimbursement.

Dr. Anna Stubblefield, superintendent, said the only comparable district in the area is Kansas City, Missouri, as other districts have not implemented vaccines and testing or strongly encouraged it.

Dr. Stubblefield said the local Kansas National Education Association shared that other districts across the country were using incentives such as the five days of sick leave.

Paige said the district should be able to be compensated for reimbursements it gives staff for sick days through the federal funding that it has received for COVID.

Dr. Stubblefield said the funding could come from the federal Esser funds from the CARES Act that the district has received, since it is directly related to COVID, and it would not affect the general fund.

However, the board did not act on the idea of reimbursing staff members $750 who did not use their five days of sick leave. They could discuss this idea again at a future meeting, according to board members.

Dr. Stubblefield said the district also is looking at testing student athletes on a regular basis, and a grant is available through the Kansas Department of Health and Environment.

Linkous also reported that the district’s COVID numbers have improved.

There were 25 students who tested positive from Sept. 25 to Oct. 1, he said. Six staff members tested positive for the same week.

Year to date, there were 378 students who tested positive, and 89 staff members who tested positive, he said.

In other action, Board President Randy Lopez recused himself and did not vote on a motion to approve a Wyandotte Health Foundation grant agreement. The $125,000 grant is from Wyandotte Health Foundation to the school district to fund a “trauma-sensitive school district.” The grant provides training for district employees for a preventive approach to trauma when a student exhibits emotional distress. Lopez is the vice president for community programs for Wyandotte Health Foundation.

Board considering whether some KCK schools and mascots should get new names

Should the Arrowhead Middle School Apaches get a new name?

What about Washington High School, named after the nation’s first President, George Washington, who owned slaves?

Or Lindbergh Elementary, named after Charles Lindbergh, the famous aviator who was thought to be a Nazi sympathizer? Or Frances Willard Elementary, named for a suffragist who may not have always supported the right of African-American women to vote?

During the past year, the school board has heard comments about some of these schools from patrons who wanted to change their names.

On Tuesday night, the Kansas City, Kansas, Board of Education unanimously appointed a committee to review name and mascot requests and make a recommendation to the board. The committee will decide if the names or mascots are offensive to others.

During discussion Tuesday night, board members said the committee might appoint subcommittees to discuss each school being reviewed individually. Each school where a change is considered almost needs its own committee because of the amount of work involved, board member Wanda Paige said.

At Tuesday night’s meeting, district officials did not mention any names of schools where a change might be in the works. Instead, they said a list of schools would be emailed later to school board members.

However, one community request was read in a letter at the July 21, 2020, school board meeting.

Amiel Green II suggested changing the name of Washington High School, which he attended, to Michelle Obama High School. His reason was that George Washington owned slaves. (See story at

At the time, the idea of changing Washington High School’s name met with a lot of comments online against it.

School board members said at that time they had received requests to change other school names as well, such as Lindbergh Elementary and Willard Elementary.

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