KNEA meets with Governor’s office, Kansas Department of Health & Environment

As COVID-19 surges in Kansas and throughout the Midwest, we have been receiving more calls and emails every day asking about how schools should be handling the isolation or quarantine of students and staff who have been directly exposed to infected individuals. We’ve broken down our efforts below to inform KNEA members of the following:

Kansas Gov. Laura Kelly

THE PROBLEM: Perhaps one of the greatest lessons we’re learning from COVID-19 is that lack of certainty causes confusion, the entrenchment of opinion, fear, and results in decision-making rooted in these attributes. Consequently, we are seeing a broad and inconsistent mix of ideas across the state, from county to county, from school district to school district on how to handle the issue of ensuring safety in our schools.

Here’s the problem as we see it: The State of Kansas via the Kansas Department of Health and Environment (KDHE) has issued “guidance” on how to deal with this but each county health department is left with the ability to issue their own orders. County health department orders are subject to what is essentially a veto by the county commission comprised of people who, by and large, are not medical experts. County commissions can then defer to school boards to decide what to do and school board members, by and large, are not medical experts, either. The politicians on county commissions and school boards tend often to answer to the loudest group that shows up at their meetings and so we are left with this hodgepodge of procedures which are a reaction to vocal citizens. The end result is the potential in some districts that conditions are unsafe for staff, but also for students and patrons.

We have seen reporting recently indicating that attending school should not be considered a potential “super spreader” event. Rightfully, this was a worry as schools reopened. We are happy that schools have not become super spreaders but frankly, that’s because teachers, administrators, staff, and many students have tried to be diligent about the very things that keep us safe – hygiene, social distancing, and most importantly, use of masks and face coverings. What remains to be done to guarantee our schools won’t spread the disease is to enact effective, consistent policies on isolation and quarantine of students and staff who have been directly exposed to an infected individual and not an attempt to bend the guidance towards convenience or opinion.

CLICK HERE for the KDHE K-12 Toolkit for dealing with COVID-19 including the requirements for modified quarantine.

KNEA TAKES ACTION: Throughout the pandemic, KNEA officials have been meeting daily and weekly with state officials to work through the unforeseen impacts this pandemic has cultivated. This week, KNEA reached out to Governor Laura Kelly’s office, along with officials from KDHE, to convey and discuss the concerns we’re hearing from educators throughout the state on this issue. During the meeting, KNEA’s legal team, along with other staff from KNEA Headquarters, presented- with clarity and certainty- that educators are facing significant safety concerns. On behalf of our members, we expressed that the current politicization of policymaking at the local level is contributing to the problem in large part because often those who work most closely with students- building-level staff- are being ignored or drowned out.

We know school administrators are under immense pressure from all sides and, in some cases, the recommendations of superintendents are being ignored by school boards who themselves face pressure from those who show up to shout at their meetings. We, of course, encourage civic engagement and advocacy, but not when it is short-sighted, ignores science and threatens long-term safety.

THE CHANGE WE’RE SEEKING: Frankly, what we need to have occur is for school boards to adopt and enforce the guidance provided by the medical experts at KDHE. And so we are asking Governor Kelly and the Secretary of the KDHE, Dr. Lee Norman, to actively advocate for consistent adherence to the guidance in our schools throughout Kansas. KNEA is working with state-level officials every day to elevate the voices of our 25,000 members (who quite naturally have varying experiences and opinions) in order to empower our local affiliates to organize and advocate on their own behalf within the districts and communities where they live and work.

It is in the best interests of our students, our school employees, the families of our students, and the community at large that our schools are open and can stay open. The best way to do that is to ensure our schools do not become super spreaders when common sense practices – that are working – are stripped away by reactionary elected officials. These practices include good temperature checks, hygiene, social distancing, wearing masks and face coverings, and isolating or quarantining those students and staff who have been in direct contact with an infected individual.

WHAT WE EXPECT: KNEA will continue to engage with the Governor’s office, officials at KDHE, and leaders from KSDE, KASB, and USA-Kansas along with citizen groups and coalition partners as we all must work collaboratively to overcome these challenges. In the coming days, we will be looking for specific directives and guidance from state officials to reinforce the duty of local elected officials to implement and maintain consistent policies and practices established by the medical experts. We will encourage our members at the local level to use these directives, guidance, and supports to empower efforts to organize, advocate and take action to ensure that every Kansas school is a safe environment for teaching and learning.

KNEA will continue to provide updates on these efforts in the coming days and weeks.