TOPEKA, Kan. (AP) — Kansas will put a priority on vaccinating teachers and other school staff against COVID-19 so that K-12 students across the state can resume in-person classes as quickly as possible, Gov. Laura Kelly said Wednesday.

The Democratic governor's announcement came a week after she told leaders of the Republican-controlled Legislature that 60% of the state's 286 school districts had started inoculating teachers. The state's public schools have about 72,000 staff members, including 34,000 certified teachers.

Kelly said the state will be able to inoculate school staff because it expects the federal government to start next week to ship an additional 25,000 vaccine doses a week. She said the federal government has promised Kansas a total of 115,000 doses a week.

The governor also said the state would make rapid-response COVID-19 testing available to schools as well.

“We want our kids back in the classroom,” Kelly said during a Statehouse news conference. “We all know that virtual school is not ideal.”

In mid-March 2020, shortly after the pandemic reached Kansas, Kelly ordered K-12 school building closed until the end of the spring semester, and she continues to argue that it was necessary to check the spread of COVID-19. But she faced heavy criticism from Republican lawmakers that the action was too drastic and hurt children's learning.

Senate President Ty Masterson, an Andover Republican, last week introduced a bill that would require the state's K-12 schools to offer in-person classes to all students starting March 26. Kelly said she hopes “we can get some of them back sooner than that."

“Some schools have started to do that,” she said. “Some counties have already started to focus on teachers and staff in the schools in anticipation of being able to bring kids back. We all know this has not been a good situation.”

Kelly's announcement came a day after the Kansas-National Association, the state's largest teachers union, invited hundreds of teacher-leaders to a Zoom panel discussion in which health experts discussed the importance of COVID-19 vaccines. Marcus Baltzell, a union spokesperson, said at least half of the state's school districts and possibly more than two-thirds are still doing remote classes at least part-time.

“We are supportive of the governor’s efforts to get vaccine to educators because we know that that is what will help us get back to safe in-person instruction according to the medical experts," he said.

But Kelly announced the focus on teachers and school staff after a winter cold snap led to rolling power outages, disrupted vaccine shipments, canceled some immunization clinics and shrank the number of people being tested.

Dennis Kriesel, executive director of the Kansas Association of Local Health Departments, said vaccine shipments that were supposed to go out earlier this week were delayed again on Wednesday. He said state health officials hope that most facilities will receive their weekly allotment by Friday.

Multiple communities, including some in the Topeka and Kansas City area, canceled vaccination clinics and testing Tuesday as temperatures dipped below zero and snow fell.

Testing had been falling even before the cold snap, with state health department data showing that the most people were tested in November, almost 186,000, or 6188 per day, and then it dropped to 182,000 in December or 5,873 a day — perhaps because of the holidays — and then it was less than 139,000 in January, or 4468 per day.

The lower number of tests has coincided with a drop in the number of positive tests. Kansas added just 1,267 new confirmed cases from Monday to Wednesday, pushing the state’s pandemic total to 288,717. That brought the state's rolling seven-day average to 546 new COVID-19 cases a day, the lowest its been since mid-September. The number of COVID-19 deaths also rose by 115 to 4,521.

But the number of hospitalizations and the positivity rate also has been shrinking, leading health officials to believe the situation is actually improving.

In Wichita, the two major hospitals now have available beds in their intensive care units after 15 weeks of full ICUs, the Sedgwick County Health Department said.

There also is room at Kansas City area hospitals, said Elizabeth Holzschuh, an epidemiologist with the Johnson County health department, during a conference call Tuesday.

Dr. Dana Hawkinson, director of infection control for the University of Kansas Health System, said the vaccination rollout is helping reduce infections — particularly among nursing home residents — but doesn’t fully explain the drop. He said it is more likely the result of better masking, adding that the recent winter weather also has caused a “nature induced shutdown.”

Dr. Steve Stites, the chief medical officer at the University of Kansas Health System, said during a daily webcast that the cold snap forced people indoors.

“You are staying within your bubble because you want to stay warm," he said. “We will take that."

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Hollingsworth reported from Mission, Kansas.

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Follow John Hanna on Twitter: https://twitter.com/apjdhanna

Copyright 2021 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed without permission.

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