TOPEKA, Kan. (AP) — Local school boards in Kansas will be allowed to reopen elementary, middle and high schools in mid-August as they normally would, despite a surge in coronavirus cases in the state.
The Republican-controlled State Board of Education on Wednesday rejected Democratic Gov. Laura Kelly’s plan to postpone the start of fall classes for three weeks, until after Labor Day. The 10-member elected board’s action leaves decisions about when to reopen to the state’s 286 local school boards, something Republican legislators and conservatives outside of state government had pressured it to do.
The board’s 5-5 vote prevents Kelly from issuing an executive order setting Sept. 9 as the start of classes for both public K-12 schools and private ones that are accredited by the state. The governor already had ordered those schools to have students and staff wear masks and have them checked daily for fever, and those mandates still stand.
Kelly suffered a big political and policy defeat after facing strong criticism from the Republican-controlled Legislature over her handling of the pandemic. The board’s vote Wednesday was required under a law enacted last month as a compromise between Kelly and GOP lawmakers who pushed to curb her power. Kelly lifted statewide restrictions on businesses and public gatherings on May 26, after weeks of criticism from Republicans that she was moving too slowly to reopen a state economy she had locked down for five weeks starting in late March.
Conservatives and Republican leaders have argued that it’s inappropriate — and highly damaging to the economy — for Kelly to impose “one size fits all” restrictions to check the spread of the novel coronavirus. The law requiring the state school board’s approval to delay the reopening of schools also has allowed counties to opt out of an order Kelly issued on July 2 to require people to wear masks in public and at their workplaces.
The State Board of Education’s vote came the same day the health officer in Sedgwick County, home to the state’s largest city of Wichita, ordered bars closed except for carryout and curbside services from Friday through Sept. 9 and dropped the limit on public gatherings from 45 to 15.
Guidelines from the American Academy of Pediatrics strongly advocate that school reopening plans start “with a goal of having students physically present in school.” Educators and state and local officials agree that children benefit from interacting with each other and that in-person classes generally are better for instruction than online classes.
Kansas also has a long tradition of letting local school districts set their own schedules and decide what’s taught and how their buildings operate. The board approved 1,100 pages of guidelines for reopening schools last week but did not impose mandates in keeping with that tradition.
But Kelly said she could not “in good conscience” have K-12 schools reopen on their normal schedule with the resurgence of reported coronavirus cases, which resulted in recent weeks in the worst seven-day rolling averages for the number of new cases per day. The state had more than 23,000 reported cases and 300 reported COVID-19-related deaths since the pandemic began.
Kelly’s proposed order for a delay would have prohibited classes and other activities through Sept. 8, except that local school districts could have enrolled students for the fall, assessed students with special needs and done off-site instruction for high school classes that also earn students college credits. The order also would not have applied to home schools.