The Kansas State Board of Education split 5-5 on a vote to affirm Gov. Laura Kelly’s executive order that would have pushed back the opening of schools to Sept. 9.
The vote effectively killed the order, putting decisions of when and how to open schools back into the hands of local school leaders.
Kelly announced last week a mandate to move the first day of school back by about a month in order to allow schools to prepare for changes in instruction. Many schools will utilize plans for virtual learning, split schedules and safety precautions that are taking time to implement. Her goal was to give schools more time for logistical accommodations and professional development.
The order would also have put all extracurricular activities on hold until schools officially open.
The executive order, E.O. 20-58, required consent by the board because of a law passed in June calling for oversight of emergency preparedness mandates. The board listened to advocates Will Lawrence, Kelly’s chief of staff, and Lee Norman, secretary of the Kansas Department of Health and Environment, before the vote.
Most of the debate centered on aspects of local control for schools. Proponents of the school closure order emphasized that COVID-19 isn’t an issue confined to any particular locale. But the opponents pointed out that the number of cases in more rural areas may increase after Labor Day, forcing schools to apply measures to slow the spread of the virus at a later date. Thus the debate split to some degree along urban vs. rural lines.
Voting to affirm the executive order were Democrats Janet Waugh and Ann Mah, as well as Republicans Kathy Busch, Jim Porter and Jim McNiece. Voting against the order were Republicans Steve Roberts, Michelle Dombrosky, Jean Clifford, Deana Horst and Ben Jones.
Kelly issued a statement shortly after the vote to express her belief that delaying school would help slow the spread of the virus.
"The cases of COVID-19 in Kansas are at an all-time high and continue to rise," Kelly’s media statement said. "Our decisions must be informed by public health experts not politics. This vote puts our students, faculty, their families and our economy at risk.
"I will continue to work with our school districts to ensure the safety and wellbeing of our children and ask every school district to delay the start of school."
A political opponent of many decisions by Kelly during the pandemic, Senate President Susan Wagle expressed her pleasure with the endorsement of local control.
"I appreciate our board members’ confidence in local district leaders and especially want to thank all Kansas parents and experts for their civic engagement on behalf of Kansas students," Wagle said in a statement. "Our state is extremely diverse, and I will continue to advocate for local control rather than a one-size-fits-all mandate by one sole leader. The democratic process and engagement from many Kansans prevailed today, and local leaders and health experts will make decisions about school closures from here forward, exactly how it should have been all along."
The vote had no effect on Kelly’s other school-related executive order, E.O. 20-59, which mandates the wearing of masks, taking of temperatures and social distancing, as well as other safety measures in schools. Kansas Commissioner of Education Randy Watson announced following the vote that he will meet virtually with superintendents across the state on Thursday to discuss the contents of E.O. 20-59, as well as the implications of the rejection of the order to delay the start of school.
Mah, who represents Shawnee County as part of her state board District 4, expressed her preference for delaying the start of school, saying it would give instructors time to prepare for teaching in a nontraditional format.
"When I first heard about the governor’s plan to delay the start of schools statewide, (my vote) was a ‘no.’ It was all about flexibility and local control for me," Mah said. "But in the time of a pandemic, it’s not about local control. Some issues transcend local control.
"Perhaps most compelling is that we are asking schools to redesign now. And they are asking for time to make that happen. I want to be on the right side of history on this one. I want to be able to say that when I had the chance to save children’s lives, I voted yes."
Among those arguing against a one-size-fits-all mandate was Clifford, who represents much of western Kansas in District 5. She pointed out that about half of the counties in her district have fewer than 10 reported cases of COVID-19.
"I do believe we must ensure our schools are as safe and ready as possible when they open, and that students want and need to resume their education as soon as possible," Clifford said. "I don’t doubt the severity and impact of this virus. But this virus is not the same across our state. It has affected different areas of our state in varying fashions. One area may be experiencing a significant outbreak, while another is experiencing no, or very low, case numbers.
"We must be able to take advantage of those times in our own communities when we are not experiencing rising cases. Delaying school start is not without a variety of risks to students in other areas, including social and emotional health."
Clifford pointed out that there is nothing in E.O. 20-58 that could not be accomplished by any school district locally, including delaying the start of school until Sept. 9. She said allowing local leaders to make the decisions about school opening would be the most effective way to slow the spread of the virus.
"Those districts who do not feel they are ready to open can, and should, delay or consider delaying their opening," Clifford said. "It will not be the same for all districts across our state at the same time."
"Counties that have not experienced a spike in the virus may experience it at some point, and they may need the days that they would have had if they had started in August, so that they could take the break to allow the numbers to come down," said Deena Horst, whose District 6 includes much of the northeast and north-central part of the state.
Speaking on behalf of the governor, Lawrence pointed to rising numbers of cases of COVID-19 in Kansas. He said that delaying the start of school could slow the spread of the virus and protect the health of adults who work in schools. He added that giving schools a few extra weeks to prepare would ensure effective instruction when schools reopened. And he said giving all schools across the state a fixed start date would give working parents and employers more ability to plan time off from work, child care and supervision of students learning virtually.
Norman pointed to evidence that children and students are contracting and passing COVID-19 at higher rates than before. He said the average age of individuals who test positive for the virus is now 39. He said students over the age of 10 are more prone to transmit the virus than those younger.
"Schools are not a safe island in an unsafe community," Norman told the board.
Opponents of the order pointed to statements by health experts who stress the importance of in-school learning. They said the damage to mental and emotional health, and the lack of socialization, shouldn’t be discounted when considering the wellbeing of children. Horst said much of the communication she received about the governor’s mandate focused on these issues.
"Many of my emails mention student hunger, learning gaps, mental issues other problems that children are experiencing because they have not been in school for such a long time," Horst said. "Obviously, the longer they are out of school, the greater those problems become. My belief is that we have to provide an immediate protection for those children whose lives are more negatively impacted by not being in school instead of not being impacted by the virus."