With Kelly’s school delay order vetoed, Kansas schools left to decide their own start date

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OVERLAND PARK, Kan. — Kansas schools are no longer required to wait until after Labor Day to start classes. 

The State Board of Education cast a split 5-5 vote Wednesday, which effectively threw out Gov. Laura Kelly’s executive order to delay the start of school. 

Cases of COVID-19 continue at a steady uptick in Kansas. The Kansas Department of Health and Environment is deeply concerned about what that could spell for students and staff now heading back to school in August.

“A school cannot be a safe island in an unsafe community, where there’s a marked increase in the number of cases,” said Dr. Lee Norman, Kansas health secretary. “It’s the same with nursing homes, meat packing plants and prisons, for example. Viruses don’t spring up out of the blue in a nursing home. They are brought in from the community. So schools in an unsafe community, they won’t be safe.”

But members of the state school board were divided because of how the virus is spreading in different communities across the state.

“I believe districts across the state need to educate students when and where they can safely do so, and that will not be the same for all districts across the state at the same time,” board member Jean Clifford said.

But the board has also enacted 1,100 pages of guidance for schools, which includes a lot of precautionary measures, protective equipment needs and extra instructional planning.

“We are asking our teachers to do a lot of professional development in a very short period of time to make sure these changes are quality and proper for our students,” said Kathy Busch, chair of the state board of education.

But a call for local control and leaving decisions on start dates to local school boards ultimately won out.

“I’m not in any hurry.  I’m certainly fine with waiting ’til after Labor Day but realize that might not be the case for everyone,” said Gretchen Shanahan, a Shawnee Mission School District parent.

Shanahan has twin fifth-graders and has decided her kids will do virtual learning this fall. She’s just hoping whenever school does begin, there are plenty of precautions for families who choose both in-person and online learning.

“I’m just exploring other options, too, in case I don’t feel comfortable with some of the new things they’re going to roll out. But I do feel hopeful and positive,” Shanahan said.

Five Johnson County school districts — Shawnee Mission, Olathe, Gardner Edgerton, Spring Hill and De Soto — signed a letter to the state board indicating they’d like to start school after Labor Day. 

The Shawnee Mission board is meeting Wednesday night to discuss options, but is not expected to take final action until Monday. Olathe’s school board has a special session planned Thursday night.

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