COVID-19 spreads 'like wildfire,' infecting children at higher rates; 63 active outbreaks in Kansas schools

Jason Tidd
Topeka Capital-Journal
A classroom sat empty at McCarter Elementary School one year ago. Today, Kansas is seeing a spike in COVID-19 infections among students.

Kansas public health officials are reporting more outbreaks of COVID-19 in educational settings as school-aged children are getting sick at the highest rates of any age group.

The Kansas Department of Health and Environment on Wednesday reported 63 active outbreaks at schools statewide. Those clusters have been connected to a combined 408 cases and one hospitalization.

That's up from 31 active clusters with 179 cases a week ago. In the past week, 34 new outbreaks were reported.

"When I compare this time to a year ago, I can tell you that we're seeing already a tremendous amount of more cases in schools," said Kansas Commissioner of Education Randy Watson during a Monday meeting.

Nine of the 63 school locations were publicly identified, along with case counts for the last 14 days.

  • Augusta High School has eight cases.
  • The fifth grade at Wichita's Benton Elementary has five cases.
  • Cheylin USD 103 in Bird City has seven cases.
  • Linn Public Schools have nine cases.
  • Lyons High School has six cases.
  • Rock Hills Jr./Sr. High in Mankato has 14 cases.
  • Spring Hill High School has six cases.
  • The St. John Jr./Sr. High School has 16 cases.
  • The St. George Elementary School in USD 323 has seven cases.

State health department policy generally allows for publicly identifying locations with five or more cases within the past 14 days. The policy states that naming the outbreak locations is intended to help the public stop the spread of disease.

Five additional outbreaks are connected to sports and four clusters at colleges or universities.

More:Less than half of Kansas school districts are participating in COVID testing strategies from KDHE

Gov. Laura Kelly points to hospital strain, youth infections

Gov. Laura Kelly's Safer Classrooms Workgroup held its first meeting on Monday.

"COVID-19 continues to spread through our communities like wildfire," Kelly told the workgroup. "It is straining our hospital system. It is threatening our businesses, and it is infecting our children at higher rates than ever before."

For the seven-day period that ended Wednesday, KDHE reported 10,846 new cases, including 3,164 new cases among children. There were 262 new hospitalizations, including nine children. Kansas had 108 new deaths, all of whom were adults.

KDHE metrics show that, per capita, the 14-17 age group, 11-13 age group and 5-10 age group have the three highest case rates of any age group.

The workgroup includes pediatricians, family physicians, school nurses, pharmacists, school psychologists and other health professionals. They are tasked with helping keep children safe from COVID-19.

The workgroup will release data on COVID-19 cases and tests at public and private schools, but the completeness of the data depends on participation from educators.

That may prove easier said than done. During the Monday meeting, officials had incomplete information on mask policies at schools with active outbreaks.

Of the 31 school outbreaks reported at that point, six had mask requirements, eight had no mandate and the other 17 didn't respond or their policies were otherwise unknown. The numbers did indicate that outbreaks tended to be smaller at schools where masks were required.

"We've got to do everything we can to keep our kids and our teachers and our staff safe," Kelly said. "But it's also critical that we keep our kids in school."

COVID at school:Multiple coronavirus outbreaks cause Kansas district to close. Will there be more?

Education commissioner asks schools about masks, COVID testing

Watson, the education commissioner, said the first questions he asks schools are about the local policies on masking, testing and vaccination. He told the workgroup that some districts have had shutdowns because of COVID-19 outbreaks.

"We've already had a handful of schools that unfortunately have had to temporarily close — not long term, but in the short term — because the viral load became too great," he said. "The number of people having to quarantine or who had virus in the schools was just too much for that school to continue in its present manner."

The Wellington school district previously shut down for more than a week, but reopened after Labor Day. The St. John-Hudson school district is closed this week. Neither district offered remote learning during the closures. Both districts added mask requirements after the outbreaks.