Multiple COVID outbreaks cause Kansas school district to close. What happens next, and will there be more?

Jason Tidd Andrew Bahl Greg Williams
Topeka Capital-Journal

As Kansas schools start the new academic year amid a COVID-19 surge, Wellington Unified School District 353 is apparently the first district in the state to shut down all classes and sports because of outbreaks.

The public school district in south-central Kansas announced multiple outbreaks at its facilities late Thursday. School officials and the Sumner County Health Department deemed three of the six buildings had outbreaks.

"We understand the frustrations and that this situation is not ideal, but the health and safety of our students and staff and community is our top priority," Wellington Superintendent Adam Hatfield said in a statement.

The district reported at least 40 positive cases within the first eight days of class at Eisenhower Elementary, Wellington Middle and Wellington High schools. The local health department recommended temporarily closing the schools because of the outbreaks.

More:Kansas reports 5 new school COVID-19 clusters in the past week. None were publicly identified.

The number of cases connect to the clusters are likely to grow. The district was testing more than 200 students on Thursday who were considered close contacts.

"Through contact tracing we realized that there were many positive cases sharing households within all of our schools," Hatfield said. "It was only a matter of time before numbers went up in all of our schools to official outbreak levels. So, the decision was made to temporarily shut down all schools."

The district has one high school, one middle school and four elementary schools. Kansas State Department of Education enrollment records show USD 353 had 1,463 students in preschool through 12th grade.

As Kansas school start the new academic year amid a COVID-19 surge, Wellington Unified School District 353 is apparently the first district in the state to shut down all classes and sports because of outbreaks.

New remote learning restrictions generate controversy

Wellington students won't be learning online during the shutdown, USD 353 spokesperson Shelby Metcalf said, pointing to a new state law that makes it harder for districts to conduct more than 40 hours of remote learning in a given year.

The outbreak at Wellington has brought to a head concerns from educators, school districts and the state board of education about that provision, which was approved by the Legislature as part of a broader bill funding Kansas schools.

Districts have options to avoid running afoul of the law. Individual students can get the go-ahead to take classes remotely from the local school board. And the Kansas State Board of Education can sign off on a broader waiver allowing for up to 240 hours of virtual instruction in a given district.

More:As Gov. Laura Kelly signs education deal, can fragile peace take hold on school funding?

If a school goes remote and a waiver isn't secured, however, there is a steep price to pay. Districts would receive per-pupil funding at a rate allocated for online students, which comes out to around $5,000 per-student. This is a significant decrease over the normal rate, which varies from district to district but is generally over twice that amount.

Sen. Molly Baumgardner, R-Louisburg, defended the law, saying legislators knew what they were doing when it was passed, saying it was informed by what she considered to be insufficient instruction that students received remotely.

She argued that the provision was a form of accountability given the funding increase given to schools statewide.

Topeka's Whitson Elementary school students talk about a book earlier this year. If a school goes to remote learning without securing a waiver from the Kansas State Board of Education, it would receive reduced funding from the state.

"Legislators, we knew exactly what we were talking about. Our head was not in the sand," Baumgardner said. "I have not heard from anyone that they have any remorse. Because we were simply saying, in these different situations, that (course) delivery is not the same. We know that because we have a year-and-a-half's worth of experience to know that the delivery was not the same."

Baumgardner noted there was nothing stopping schools from making up days lost due to a virus outbreak at the end of the year, much like they would do if a blizzard hit.

But Mark Tallman, lobbyist for the Kansas Association of School Boards, said that there was insufficient consideration given to the potential for variants — or a whole separate pandemic — to put the limits to the test.

"I think most people were sort of hoping the pandemic would be over and we wouldn't have to kind of face this again," he said. 

More:KDHE issues Kansas county COVID-19 rankings to aid local leaders. How does your county compare?

As of now, the state board of education hasn't received an application from districts seeking a waiver. Board Chair Jim Porter, R-Fredonia, said it was unclear if the COVID-19 pandemic would be an acceptable excuse for exceeding the remote learning limits, ambiguity he called "extremely concerning."

He added that he felt the restrictions had been a mistake and said the board would do what it could to give local districts flexibility. 

"We recognize the seriousness of this issue," Porter said. "We recognize the need for safety ... and would be open within the realm of our authority to help them."

Can masks keep kids in school?

Many pediatricians and infectious disease specialists have recommended that schools require masks, including the Kansas Chapter of the American Academy of Pediatrics and the Kansas COVID Workgroup for Kids.

Wellington schools haven't mandated masks, except for on buses as required by federal regulations, according to the USD 353 operation and safety plan. The district has recommended masking for unvaccinated teachers, staff, students and visitors when indoors, but recommends against masking when outside.

Gov. Laura Kelly on Tuesday announced an advertising campaign on how to keep kids safe at school during the pandemic.

"Record numbers of children are catching the virus and being hospitalized from COVID-19," Kelly said. "As we head back to school, it’s critical that all Kansas students, teachers, and staff wear masks, get tested regularly and, if you’re 12 or older, get vaccinated. That’s how we keep our kids safe and in the classroom."

More:Shawnee County runs the gamut of mask regulations. Where are you required to wear a mask in the Topeka area?

House Majority Leader Dan Hawkins, R-Wichita, criticized the governor's school mask recommendations in a newsletter earlier this month. He said he agrees with Sen. Roger Marshall that mask "recommendations are not backed by the data or science."

"I’m heartened to see that many local governments and school districts are not following the Governor’s recommendations this time around," Hawkins said in his Aug. 6 edition of The Majority Record. "The voices of the people have been heard in these areas. At the same time, it’s troubling to see that some areas and school districts are following Governor Kelly’s mask madness."

Hawkins also criticized Kelly's mask mandate for executive branch employees. The governor's office has since instructed employees to begin transitioning to remote work.

More:Kansas state employees to work remotely until October amid surge of COVID-19 cases

Masks and mask mandates do, in fact, reduce the spread of COVID-19, both at school and in the community, research shows.

A report published by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention shows that mask requirements led to a 37% reduction in disease incidence at school. University of Kansas researchers found that county-level mask mandates in Kansas during the fall and winter led to a 60% reduction in cases, a 60% reduction in hospitalizations and a 65% reduction in deaths.

Hawkins didn't respond Friday afternoon to emails asking whether he stands by his past mask comments in light of the Wellington situation.

The governor remains supportive of universal masking at school.

"Governor Kelly wants to see students safe and learning in the classroom," spokesperson Reeves Oyster said Friday in a statement. "The way we make that happen is by wearing masks in schools and getting vaccinated."

Kansas COVID rates and testing

The Wellington school operating plans follow the KDHE's "Stay to Learn" testing guidelines. The protocol permits fully vaccinated people to skip quarantine after exposure as long as they remain asymptomatic. Close contacts are tested daily with a rapid test during the quarantine period and are allowed to continue in-person learning as long as their tests remain negative.

Most school districts in Kansas are not currently following any of the KDHE's three testing strategies, which are designed to reduce outbreaks and keep schools open.

Federal data released Friday by the White House COVID-19 task force showed the statewide positive test rate is 11.4% in Kansas. Rates are highest among school-aged children, with 14.4% positivity among ages 5-11 and 17% among ages 12-17.

Sumner County's positive test rate is 16.2%. The 90 cases were reported in the past week was a 150% increase week-over-week.

Vaccination rates are low in Sumner County as a whole, and even lower among school-aged children.

More:Less than half of Kansas school districts are participating in COVID testing strategies from KDHE

The Kansas Department of Health and Environment's county COVID-19 rankings put Sumner County as 93rd of the 105 counties. The rankings, which are comprised of vaccination, case and testing statistics

About 33.6% of the entire county population is fully vaccinated, according to federal data. The rate drops to 13% of the 12-17 population in Sumner County.

Statewide, about 47.7% of the entire population is fully vaccinated, while only 32% of the 12-17 age group is fully vaccinated.

There were 8,931 new cases were reported in Kansas in seven day period through Wednesday, the White House data show. The resulting rate of 307 new cases per 100,000 people is more than triple the federal red zone threshold. At least five children were hospitalized.