Gov. Laura Kelly said Thursday that the issue of whether the state could mandate all students to wear masks when they return to in-person classes isn’t resolved, despite an opinion from the attorney general contradicting her efforts at a statewide mandate.
Kelly’s said during a virtual roundtable with teachers as districts finalize their preparations to resume classes that she thought a "more definitive" solution could come into place than the current standoff with Attorney General Derek Schmidt, although she didn’t elaborate on what that could look like.
What she didn’t want, however, was a lawsuit over the matter.
"I don’t want another lawsuit, I want to appeal to the attorney general to put the health and safety of Kansans first," she told reporters following the event. "An opinion is exactly that, it is an opinion."
Her remarks came after Schmidt released written legal guidance Tuesday that local school boards could adopt less stringent mitigation requirements than what state or county officials have required.
That includes Kelly’s Executive Order 20-59, issued in July, which mandated mask wearing, temperature checks and other prevention tactics statewide.
"The preexisting statutory and constitutional authority of local school boards to adopt local policies for the operation of local schools regarding wearing masks, social distancing, washing hands, and temperature takings in local schools has not been displaced by Executive Order 20-59," Schmidt wrote. "Consequently, local school boards retain their authority to adopt different or modified local requirements on these subjects."
But Kelly said she "didn’t know" where Schmidt got that legal basis from.
"I am confident that we are on solid ground," she said of her executive order’s legality.
During the roundtable, which featured teachers from across the state in a variety of subject areas, issues surrounding the mask mandate were just one of many matters broached.
"Some of my friends in other districts are expressing that masks are optional and there is some concern," said Lori Stratton, a high school English teacher from Johnson County.
But other concerns exist too among educators, including what parents and staff will have to do for child care if remote classes are necessary, as well as what the potential cancellation of sports might mean for students and families.
Jamila Harris said the sports concerns are significant in Kansas City, where she works as a school counselor, with the district opting to move beyond the Kansas State High Schools Activities Association and suspend fall athletics.
"That’s a big concern for some of our student-athletes," Harris said. "How do we stick to what is safe for students, however listen to the voice of both the communities and the student-athletes who are looking for that (college) scholarship."
Kelly said she hoped that KSHSAA was working "quickly" on the matter and noted the possibility of swapping spring and fall sports in an effort to wait on high-contact competitions like football or soccer.
"I’m hoping they’re still having those conversations because sports are incredibly important," she said.
Most all of the educators in attendance underscored the challenges that come with an unpredictable fall, especially for a profession that values planning.
"The unknown is taking a toll," said Aaron Edwards, band director at Lansing High School.
With some districts slated to begin classes remotely, including Topeka USD 501, that uncertainty seems likely to continue.
Sen. Dinah Sykes, D-Lenexa, relayed a conversation she had with her two children, both of whom are high school age.
The two students are split on how they expect to handle their classes when school starts, with one of Sykes’ sons choosing to take classes remotely. The other has expressed a desire to return to school physically, if it is safe to do so.
But her message for both of them was simple: Expect the unexpected.
"Whenever you go back, do not expect it to look like it did before spring break," Sykes said she told them. "And it is challenging for someone who likes to plan and who wants to know what two weeks from now looks like. But we need to focus on the safety of all Kansans."