'Children are catching the virus … and dying': Some Kansas schools mandating masks amid 21 COVID outbreaks

Jason Tidd
Topeka Capital-Journal

More school districts across Kansas are adopting mask mandates as public health officials report a growing number of COVID-19 cases at schools.

The Kansas Department of Health and Environment on Wednesday reported 14 new clusters at schools since last week. There are now 21 active school clusters in the state with 114 cases combined.

The only school outbreaks that were publicly identified were Mount Olive Lutheran School in Overland Park and the USD 405 Central Elementary School in Lyons.

Gov. Laura Kelly announced the formation of a new Safer Classrooms Workgroup to highlight the urgency of protecting students and teachers from COVID-19.

"Children are catching the virus, being hospitalized, and dying from COVID at increasingly higher rates," Kelly said in a Wednesday statement. "There’s nothing more important than keeping our students healthy and in the classroom."

KDHE reports that two children have died from COVID-19 in Kansas. Both deaths happened in November. 

A custodian at Wanamaker Elementary School wipes down a second-grade classroom desk with disinfectant. School districts across the state are reporting a growing number of COVID-19 cases and quarantines.

The workgroup will release a weekly "School Safety Report" that will include information on outbreaks.

"I'm hoping the reality on the ground will be driving the decisions they will make," Kelly said of mask mandates at schools as COVID-19 cases surge. "But if they do not require masking, I would turn to every parent in the state of Kansas and say 'You can.'"

Statewide, 3,422 children tested positive for COVID-19 since last Wednesday, according to the KDHE.

"We know that there is a very high prevalence of coronavirus going around right now in the population — pediatric population, adult population," infectious disease specialist Dana Hawkinson said during a Monday media briefing by The University of Kansas Health System.

KDHE data on new clusters and active outbreaks wasn't available midafternoon Wednesday. The KDHE said a list of active clusters was expected to be released later in the afternoon.

Typically, only a fraction of outbreaks in the state are publicly identified.

Federal data released Tuesday shows at least 13 children with confirmed COVID-19 were hospitalized within the past seven days.

Angela Myers, a pediatric infectious disease specialist at Children's Mercy, said Monday that the hospital had 11 inpatients with COVID-19, including three in the ICU. The children's hospital has treated patients as young as infants and as old as 18 and older who have COVID.

"We have kids that get admitted to the hospital who have underlying conditions, but also kids that are otherwise healthy with really no huge risk factors, other than asthma or they may be obese, which both of those are pretty common these days," she said. "It's not just kids with immune deficiencies."

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

School-aged children have highest positive COVID test rates

In Kansas, school-aged children have the highest positive test rates. The 12-17 age group has 16.1% positivity while the 5-11 age group has 13.7% positivity. The statewide positive test rate for all ages is 11.7%.

Statewide, 45.6% of eligible youths have gotten at least one dose while 33.6% are fully vaccinated. But vaccination rates vary among the counties.

"Last year there was not a question: if kids were in school, they were masked," Myers said. "There was also a lot of hybrid and different things happening, so I think people were just, in general, more careful than they are this time around. And unfortunately, we also have a more contagious virus at this time."

Extended periods of hybrid or online learning won't be a viable option for most districts this year because of a new state law that makes it harder for schools to conduct more than 40 hours of remote learning in a given year.

The highly contagious delta coronavirus variant comprised the vast majority of specimens collected in Kansas last month.

Hawkinson, of the KU health system, said there should be a greater emphasis on COVID testing.

"When you have coronavirus going around, and you know it, and you don't want to test for it, that's just a lack of really understanding what is going on, what are the infection dynamics in our particular area," he said.

Parents should get their children tested, even if their symptoms are mild, Myers said. Common symptoms include fever, sore throat and runny nose. If your child is struggling to breathe or breathing fast, you should take them to an emergency room.

School districts that offer testing make it easier for parents, the doctor said.

However, information released last week showed only 20% of the state's school districts have testing plans approved by the state health department.

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

More Kansas school districts add face mask mandates

Mask policy for the new academic year has mostly been left up to individual school districts. Few started with mandates.

"Are these schools able to continue to move on and carry on without the mask mandates? Certainly from the available, peer-reviewed, consistent evidence, that answer would be no," Hawkinson said. "And a lot of these schools are being shut down now and quarantined. And again, that puts kids at home, that increases isolation.

"So I think it's just a matter of some people really have to see the changes and the results for themselves. Unfortunately, it will lead to further spread of disease in those kids, but also in that community and those household members as well."

In Wellington, USD 353 has shut down all classes and activities. The district, which didn't require masks, reported at least 40 positive cases within the first eight days of classes.

Federal data shows Sumner County had a 255% increase week-over-week in new cases. The county's positive test rate was 15.1%. While 34.1% of the county population is fully vaccinated, just 13.9% of the eligible youth population is.

Several school districts in the state have started requiring masks this week in response to growing numbers of cases and quarantines.

Wichita USD 259, the largest public school district in the state, started a mask mandate on Monday. As of Aug. 26, 466 students and 84 staff had tested positive since the start of August, with 133 staff in active quarantines.

Arkansas City USD 470 started requiring masks on Wednesday. District officials said that by wearing masks, the number of students missing school due to quarantine can be significantly reduced.

An "Unmask the children of USD 470" petition had 173 signatures by Wednesday afternoon. The petition is opposed to "requiring masks for individuals who are not sick."

In Andover, USD 385 will begin requiring masks at elementary schools on Friday, but not at middle or high schools. District officials said they experienced "rising Covid positive cases and student quarantines in our district, particularly at the elementary level."

The district recorded 57 student cases and five staff cases within the first two weeks of class, forcing 335 students and one staff member into quarantine.

"We have had a total of 36 positive cases among elementary students," the district said in a statement. "All of last school year, we had a total of 107 positive cases among elementary students, so we have had more than a third of the total number of elementary positive cases after only two weeks."

More:How many kids are vaccinated in Kansas? Here's a county COVID-19 breakdown for eligible children.

House leader pushes back against COVID-19 mask mandates

Still, many districts don't have mask mandates. House Majority Leader Dan Hawkins, R-Wichita, has said he is "heartened" by schools that have rejected the "mask madness."

"I know that there are some areas of our country that have just been more resistant to masking in general," Myers said. "We've seen what happens when kids are together in groups, whether it's preschool or it is regular school, and they're unmasked. Hopefully some of these places will change their minds and start having all kids mask as they see more and more cases happening."

Mask policy can be difficult to discuss when it elicits an "visceral or emotional reaction," Myers said.

"I would like to say that you can have a constructive conversation," she said, "where you can talk about the data and how masking does prevent transmission from person to person, and how in so many places this has been shown in different environments, from hair salons to airplanes to Navy ships, I mean all over the place this has been shown, and in schools."

More:St. Francis hospital urges COVID vaccinations and masks: ‘It’s the only way to slow the spread of the virus'

Capital-Journal reporter Andrew Bahl contributed reporting.