17 Kansas residents, two out-of-state visitors have tested positive; 900,000 Kansas adults at risk of serious illness; House prayer asks God to help Senate act with more urgency
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TOPEKA — Gov. Laura Kelly and education commissioner Randy Watson on Tuesday announced all K-12 schools will be closed and in-person instruction will cease for the duration of the current school year as part of the state's evolving strategy for containing the spread of COVID-19.
Educators will continue to work on plans to provide online instruction to students in the K-12 system in Kansas. Once school buildings are sanitized, the governor said, portions can be opened to small groups of personnel charged with implementing the online system.
In addition, the Democratic governor said, starting Monday most state employees in the executive branch will be placed on paid administrative leave for two weeks.
"The steps we are announcing today will create the space we need at the state level to develop a more strategic, resilient infrastructure so that we can get ahead of this threat and limit its long-term impact," Kelly said. "The reality of this pandemic is that it cannot be controlled statewide if school buildings return to normal operations or if they respond inconsistently within our local communities."
A task force of 40 educators was preparing to deliver guidelines for school districts by Wednesday night. Challenges include child care, delivery of meals, and alternative instruction for urban and rural school kids who lack devices or quality internet access.
Watson said schools will focus on giving students the ability to continue to learn, but "we’re just getting started on what that transition will look like in this unprecedented time."
"This is a defining moment for all educators, parents and students in our state, and how we choose to respond will say a lot about our direction forward," Watson said.
Local school boards will be tasked with re-examining graduation requirements to ensure seniors graduate on time, Watson said.
The K-12 announcement followed passage by the House of a bill that will allow schools to pay hourly employees while buildings are closed and waive requirements in state law for classroom hours per school year.
Confirmed cases of COVID-19 in Kansas have climbed to at least 19 as authorities confront the pandemic and an ever-shifting new normal.
The Kansas Department for Health and Environment said the number of infected individuals includes 17 state residents. Visitors from Missouri and Oregon also have tested positive here, the agency said, but are recorded under their home state per federal guidelines.
The latest confirmed cases come from travelers to Ford and Miami counties, the first case in Douglas County, two new positive tests for Wyandotte County and two additions that bring the Johnson County total to 11. Franklin, Butler and Wyandotte counties previously recorded cases.
People over 60 and younger adults with serious medical conditions could become severely ill if infected with the novel coronavirus. A new report from the Kaiser Family Foundation shows 903,980 Kansas adults are at risk of serious illness from the virus.
Kelly's decision to send state workers home applies to executive branch employees under her supervision.
DeAngela Burns-Wallace, secretary for the Kansas Department of Administration, said the decision will allow agencies to comply with recommendations for limiting the spread of COVID-19. Essential state services still will be provided.
"We didn't want to continue to create work environments where we are bringing large groups together and not being able to social distance," Burns-Wallace said.
The Attorney General's Office, Kansas Bureau of Investigation and Kansas Insurance Department plan to take similar actions.
Also on Tuesday, the University of Kansas announced all classes for the remainder of the semester will be conducted online and on-campus housing will be restricted to residents who have nowhere else to go. The university was still thinking about whether to cancel commencement in May.
The Kansas Court of Appeals canceled oral arguments for March and April. The Kansas Supreme Court previously announced it had cleared its March docket.
The Kansas Lottery announced it was closing the four state-owned casinos in response to a ban ordered by Kelly on gatherings of 50 or more people. The state operates casinos in Kansas City, Pittsburg, Mulvane and Dodge City.
The Kansas House swiftly passed a bill to relieve school districts of state-mandated attendance at public schools. Current Kansas law requires 1,116 classroom hours in a school year for students in grades 1 through 11, and 1,086 hours for grade 12.
House Speaker Ron Ryckman during a caucus meeting said the bill would allow schools to continue to pay all employees while schools are closed. The continued pay could help schools continue to provide food for children, Ryckman said.
"We're giving our locals, through Randy's office, the authority to do what they think is best at this time for schools and their kids," Ryckman said.
In floor debate, Rep. Michael Capps, R-Wichita, raged against the proposal as a "government-funded bailout of the education system."
"The schools are coming to us, because of this virus, and saying it may prevent them from being able to educate our children, fulfilling their one and only obligation to educate our children," Capps said. "The schools are asking us to allow them to waive the required classroom hours, but yet they still want to collect the massive budget that’s encompassing more than 50% of our state budget."
Capps complained about the possibility of paying employees twice in the event that schools are called back to service over the summer.
"You know what?" said Rep. Brenda Dietrich, a Republican from Topeka and retired educator. "We do what we need to do to accomplish our goals, and education is one of the most important things we do as a state."
Lawmakers were working to finalize several other pieces of legislation relating to the coronavirus crisis. The proposals include an extension of the governor’s emergency declaration into January 2021, expansion of unemployment benefits, and authority for the judicial branch to alter speedy trial standards and other deadlines.
House leaders hoped to expedite the budget and adjourn Monday, but the Senate insisted on working through Wednesday or Thursday to get additional work done.
In the morning’s opening prayer, House Minority Leader Tom Sawyer, D-Wichita, prayed for God to "grant us the wisdom we need as we work toward shutting down this part of the session."
"Please nudge our counterparts in the Senate," Sawyer said. "Please help them to work with a little more urgency. And please help us get home soon and safely to be with our friends and family. In your great name we pray."
One Kansan has died from the virus. More than 400 individuals have been tested in the state.
Kelly's executive order to ban mass gatherings took effect Tuesday afternoon. The order defines "mass gatherings" as any planned or spontaneous public or private event that brings together 50 or more people in an enclosed space.
The prohibition applies to taverns, fitness centers, conference rooms, meeting halls, pools, auditoriums, theaters, museums, stadiums and arenas.
Kelly’s order contains a long list of exemptions, including the Legislature, religious gatherings, airports, funerals, child care, polling places, hotels and motels, jails and prisons, food pantries, apartments, shopping malls, hospitals, libraries, restaurants and bars that provide 6 feet of space between seats, grocery stores, office space, manufacturing facilities and public transportation.