TOPEKA, KS (AP) — Gov. Laura Kelly on Tuesday closed Kansas' public and private K-12 schools for the rest of the spring semester, moving teaching online throughout the state to try to lessen the spread of the new coronavirus.
Kelly also said that starting Monday, most of the 18,000 state workers under her supervision will be directed to stay at home for two weeks so that agencies can plan for having some continue working from home and placing others on paid administrative leave. She acknowledged that Kansans may see deadlines extended for such things as renewing driver's or professional licenses.
It was the governor's strongest response yet to the coronavirus pandemic, coming a day after she banned public gatherings of 50 or more people throughout the state, only to see federal officials recommended no gatherings of more than 10. Her move to close the schools had the support of Education Commissioner Randy Watson and groups representing teachers, school boards and school administrators.
Kelly's order also came after the number of confirmed coronavirus cases doubled in two days, reaching at least 18 on Tuesday, with one COVID-19-related death in Wyandotte County. Most of the cases are in the Kansas City area, but western Kansas also reported a case.
“The reality of this pandemic is that it cannot be controlled statewide if schools buildings return to normal operations or if they respond inconsistently within our local communities,” Kelly said during a Statehouse news conference.
For most people, the new coronavirus causes only mild or moderate symptoms, such as fever and cough, and the vast majority recover. But for some, especially older adults and people with existing health problems, it can cause more severe illness, including pneumonia.
Yet Kelly's order to close schools concerned some Republican legislators, and Senate health committee Chairman Gene Suellentrop, a Wichita Republican, called it “asinine.” He said schools could remain closed for two or four weeks, but shuttering them for the rest of the semester is overreacting.
“We are overblowing this thing,” he said. “It doesn't mean people need to be reckless, but we can't stop living.”
Kelly and Watson already had urged schools to remain closed this week if they were not already on spring break, and some local health officers had started ordering them closed.
The governor said that after some buildings are “thoroughly sanitized,” they may reopen to allow educators to plan services or to host fewer than 10 students. Watson said a task force will issue recommendations later this week, including about how to teach students without adequate access to computers or internet services. Kansas has almost 500,000 K-12 students.
But GOP Sen. Julia Lynn, of Olathe, said she is skeptical such plans will deliver an adequate education.
Kelly said schools might not reopen in August for the new school year.
“This situation has evolved rapidly and will continue to do so for the foreseeable future,” she said.
Kelly has previously stopped short of taking actions other governors have to check the spread of coronavirus, such as ordering the closing of private businesses or imposing a curfew. She's argued that Kansas should take steps fitting a state with a relatively low population density.
But state universities already have moved classes online and the University of Kansas, Kansas State and Wichita State announced Tuesday that all classes would be held remotely for the rest of the semester.
Officials in Johnson and Wyandotte counties and Jackson County, Missouri, ordered the closing of restaurants, bars, taverns, clubs and movie theaters through April 1, with the exception of drive-thru, pickup and delivery services.
And Kansas lottery officials announced the four state-owned casinos will close at the end of the day Tuesday until at least March 30. The casinos are in Kansas City, Pittsburg, Dodge City and Mulvane, south of Wichita.
Health officials on Tuesday reported the first coronavirus cases in Douglas County, home to the University of Kansas; Miami County, south of the Kansas City metropolitan area; and Ford County, in southwest Kansas. Franklin County in eastern Kansas and Butler County outside of Wichita each have recorded a case.
Johnson County, the state's most populous county, has reported 10 confirmed cases and neighboring Wyandotte County, three.
Kansas health officials said 16 of the cases involve Kansas residents. The Ford County case involves a visitor from Oregon and the Miami County case, someone from Missouri.
The state's only COVID-19-related death so far was last week, a man in his 70s who lived in a Kansas City, Kansas nursing home. Dr. Lee Norman, the state's health secretary, said last week that the man was immobile so someone brought the infection to him.