Kansas ramps up efforts to track COVID-19 in schools amid outbreaks

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TOPEKA, Kan. — With school back in session, a spike in pediatric cases is leading a new push to make classrooms safer. Governor Laura Kelly met with several health providers in the state on Monday, warning health leaders of the alarming number of cases.

“We’ve seen examples from all over the state of school clusters, forcing large numbers of teachers and students to go into quarantine,” Kelly said.

According to the Governor, coronavirus is infecting children at a higher rate “than ever before.” Kelly said some districts are exploring a return to remote learning, while some have already had to temporarily shut down.

The governor addressed a group of health officials in the state as part of her Safer Classrooms Workgroup. Panel members include experts with the state’s health department, the American Academy of Pediatrics and a range of health and education organizations in the state.

As part of the group, members are tasked with figuring out what’s working and not working in preventing coronavirus spread in Kansas schools. Some of the data they’ll be looking into includes child vaccination rates, masking policies, and coronavirus testing.

Dr. Marci Nielsen, Chief Advisor of Vaccine Distribution in the state, said that while current numbers point to fewer outbreaks in schools that have mask policies in place, a large number of school districts are not reporting their policies. That’s leaving a big gap in data.

State data discussed in the meeting showed 54% of school districts are listed under “No Response or Unknown.”

“It’s just 22% of school districts that have no mask policy at all, but we’ve got a lot of school districts that we don’t know,” Nielsen said.

Gathering data on school masking policies seems to be a primary focus for the group, and getting answers to an ongoing debate over whether masks actually works.

This comes after pediatric coronavirus cases have reached new heights. Just earlier this month, the American Academy of Pediatrics reported that weekly pediatric coronavirus cases surpassed 250,000 new cases in a week.

As state leaders mull over the best strategies to keep kids safe in school, health officials continue to point to safety measures as the most effective route.

Dr. Dennis Cooley, a Topeka pediatrician who serves as District Chair for the American Academy of Pediatrics, said the best way to beat the pandemic is to get vaccinated and follow approved health protocols, especially as the highly contagious Delta variant spreads.

“The Delta variant is extremely dangerous, and we’re seeing that. Our hospitals are stressed,” Cooley said. “Continue to wear your mask. Continue to do the distancing.”

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