Kansas COVID clusters fall: 'When we require masks, we see fewer outbreaks impacting fewer students'

Jason Tidd
Topeka Capital-Journal
Kansas state leaders are crediting mask mandates in schools for a drop in COVID-19 outbreaks.

The number of schools with active coronavirus clusters is falling as Kansas public health officials reiterate that testing, vaccination and masking are the three primary tools to keep students safe and in the classroom.

The Kansas Department of Health and Environment on Wednesday reported 56 active COVID-19 school clusters connected to 546 cases. That's down from 68 active outbreaks at schools a week ago, despite 10 new school clusters reported statewide over the past week.

"It is important for us to understand whether masks, at the end of the day, prevent outbreaks in schools," said Marci Nielsen, one of the governor's pandemic advisers.

"These trends continue to show that in Kansas, when we require masks, we see fewer outbreaks impacting fewer students," she said. "You can see that reflected in the data this week, as we saw last week."

Nielsen, who was speaking during the governor's Safer Classrooms Workgroup meeting on Wednesday, shared KDHE data on mask policies and COVID-19 outbreaks. Of the active outbreaks reported a week ago, 37% were at districts that reported having a mask requirement. Outbreaks at schools with either no mask mandate or an unknown policy had more than triple the number of cases per capita.

More:'Masks work in kids': Kansas reports fewer school COVID outbreaks as safety group touts masks, vaccines

While most districts aren't mandating masks, a majority of children are required to wear masks at school.

There has been no statewide mask mandate since April 1, when Republican legislative leadership blocked Democratic Gov. Laura Kelly's executive order. Mask policy has since been left to local school boards and county commissions.

About 20% of the state's public and private schools report having a mask requirement for most or all students, according to a KDHE presentation. Those schools educate about 63% of the state's schoolchildren.

Other COVID-19 clusters connected to education

In addition to the 56 active school clusters, the state reported active outbreaks at 10 sporting activities, 15 day cares and four colleges or universities.

The KDHE named a fraction of those exposure locations with active outbreaks, as well as their case counts from the past 14 days.

Ivy League Nursery and Learning Center in Overland Park has 15 cases. Abilene Elementary School in Sedgwick County has five cases. Anthony Elementary School in Anthony has five cases. Axtell Public School USD 113 has five cases.

Bonner Springs Elementary has six cases. Circle Towanda Intermediate School in Butler County has 20 cases. Cure of Ars Catholic School in Leawood has seven cases. Great Bend High School has five cases. Hillsboro Elementary School has 12 cases.

Lincoln Elementary School in Great Bend has six cases. Lincoln Jr./Sr. High School in Lincoln has five cases. Scott City Elementary has nine cases. Seaman Middle School in Topeka has five cases. Seltzer Elementary School in Wichita has six cases. Yates Center Middle School has 12 cases.

'A sigh of relief' from August, but school-aged children are still the most at risk to catch COVID 

Kansas has experienced improvement after many coronavirus pandemic indicators peaked around late August.

In the seven days, KDHE recorded 6,031 new cases, 244 new hospitalizations and 45 new deaths. Children accounted for 1,681 of the cases, nine of the hospitalizations and none of the deaths.

"Things are finally starting to calm down," Nielsen said. "People are starting to breathe a bit of a sigh of relief."

Still, school-aged children remain at the highest risk for contracting the disease. State metrics for last week show the three highest per capita case rates were in the 11-13, 14-17 and 5-10 age groups.

Kimber Kasitz, the head nurse for Wichita Public Schools, said parents should know that COVID-19 is affecting children, and that it isn't just children with comorbidities.

"The landscape of COVID this year looks very different for children than it did last year, due to the delta variant," she said. "We are seeing children in hospitals, and we are seeing children with some long-term effects from COVID."

Pediatric hospital admissions numbers have started improving, Nielsen said.

"You can't just claim two weeks as a trend, but but it does appear to be getting better," she said.

More:Kansas doctors fear future fall COVID surge as masks come off after high case counts in September

Preventing a 'brutal winter' with testing, masks 

Some health officials have warned of the potential for another surge this fall or winter, especially if masking policies are loosened. School administrators have been focused on long-term mitigation, said Randy Watson, the state's education commissioner.

"Last winter was a brutal winter, and we're hoping that doesn't happen again," he said.

Despite praise from Watson for KDHE testing protocols, about 22% of public and private schools have expressed no interest in implementing one of the state-funded programs.

Only 134 school districts are reporting testing numbers to the KDHE. In the past week, 82 districts had a combined 570 new cases discovered through school-based testing protocols.

"What we have found in schools that ... voluntary testing has met with less resistance" than masking and vaccination, Watson said. "We have less resistance to voluntary testing because people want to be in school and they want to participate in those activities."

More:'It probably even makes it worse': Sen. Marshall questions effectiveness of masks. Experts push back.

While workgroup members expressed mental health concerns exacerbated by the pandemic, they did not place the blame on mitigation measures.

"I believe that masks are helping kids stay in school and have that social interaction," said Jennifer Bacani McKenney, co-chair of the workgroup and the Wilson County health officer. "I believe that testing is helping kids to stay in school and have that interaction that they need with their peers."