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

Jason Tidd
Topeka Capital-Journal

State officials reported a decline in the number of active COVID-19 outbreaks at schools in Kansas as public health authorities say masking helps keep children safe.

The Kansas Department of Health and Environment on Wednesday reported 12 new school clusters, four new sports clusters and six new clusters at daycares in the past week.

Kansas has 68 active school clusters, down from 79 a week ago; 16 active sports clusters, up from 12 a week ago; and 18 daycare clusters, up from 16 last week.

Sport clusters include middle and high school sports teams.

The active school clusters have been connected to 596 cases, one hospitalization and one death. The active sports clusters have been connected to 108 cases and one hospitalization. The active day care clusters have been connected to 84 cases.

The KDHE publicly identifies some outbreak exposure locations and their number of cases in the past 14 days. Wednesday's list included three day cares, nine schools and one sports team.

More:Which Kansas school districts are home to the most children with COVID? New KDHE data reveals answer.

Building Blocks Child Development Center in Lenexa had 10 cases. Holy Trinity Early Education Center in Lenexa had six cases. Small Steps Home Daycare in Overland Park had 10 cases.

Abilene Elementary School, apparently in Sedgwick County's Valley Center school district, had six cases.

In Harper County, Anthony Elementary School's fifth grade had 19 cases, which past Kansas State Department of Education enrollment numbers suggest is equivalent to about two-third of the class.

Bonner Springs Elementary had seven cases. Cure of Ars Catholic School in Leawood had 12 cases. Eisenhower Elementary in Great Bend had five cases. Great Bend High School had five cases. Heartspring School in Wichita had six cases. Hillsboro Elementary had 16 cases. Junction Elementary in Kansas City had seven cases.

Wichita North High School's football team had seven cases.

Over the past seven days, the KDHE reported 6,497 new cases, 280 hospitalizations and 55 deaths from COVID-19. Children accounted for 1,748 cases and five hospitalizations, according to the state data.

More:'You're gonna have to ... put some pressure on these people': Kansas school COVID cluster turns deadly

Federal data for Kansas shows a 6% drop in new cases, a 13% drop in hospital admissions and a 56% drop in deaths week-over-week. The positive test rate increased slightly, however, and school-aged children continue to have the highest positivity rates. The data showed 22 pediatric hospitalizations, a 38% increase from a week ago.

The state and most of its counties remain areas of high transmission.

During a Wednesday meeting of the governor's Safer Classrooms Workgroup, Farah Ahmed, a KDHE epidemiologist, shared case data. Historically, the 14-17 age group has had rates comparable to the entire state population, while younger children had far fewer cases per capita.

That changed this summer and fall with the emergency of the highly-contagious delta variant. During the height of the recent surge, children in the 11-13 and 14-17 age groups had case rates nearly double that of the general population. Children in the 5-10 age group had about 40% more cases per capita than the general population.

Youth COVID vaccination lags

An empty classroom at McCarter Elementary School awaits students on Sept. 9, 2020.

Joan Duwve, the deputy state health officer, noted that U.S. youth vaccination rates continue to outpace those of Kansas. About 58% of the 12-17 population nationwide is vaccinated with at least one dose, compared to 50% of the same population in Kansas.

"The concerning thing is that the divide continues to get wider," she said. "So in Kansas, our youth are falling further and further behind the national average of youth across the country who are getting vaccinated."

She urged people to reassure parents that vaccines "will help to keep their children safe and healthy and in school."

More:Kansas middle school student dies of COVID; state reports 11 new school clusters

Data show vaccines protect children from serious illness, according to a morbidity and mortality weekly report from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

"Among adolescents aged 12–17 years, the only pediatric age group for whom a COVID-19 vaccine is currently approved, hospitalization rates were approximately 10 times higher in unvaccinated compared with fully vaccinated adolescents, indicating that vaccines were highly effective at preventing serious COVID-19 illness in this age group during a period when the Delta variant predominated," the MMWR report concluded.

Youth vaccination rates are uneven in Kansas. Rural areas in particular tend to have lower rates. Still, Sedgwick County was specifically called out in the presentation for having a below-average rate with 42% of eligible youth with one dose amid "many outbreaks" reported in the Wichita area.

Kimber Kasitz, the health director for Wichita Public Schools, said parents are generally accepting of vaccines. Less than 2% of USD 259 of students have religious or medical exemptions to routine vaccines.

"Our parents are vaccinating," she said. "But I think with the COVID-19 vaccine, there's still just some hesitancy and fear because of some of the misinformation that was put out there."

Masking in Kansas schools amid COVID outbreaks

About 22% of school districts in the state have shown no interest in using state funds to provide COVID-19 testing. Still, many school districts are reporting testing numbers to the state. Those reports showed about 430 cases across 47 districts over the past week.

Only about 20% of school districts report requiring masks for most or all of their students. Those districts educate about 63% of the state's student population.

Masking makes a difference with outbreaks, especially the number of students affected.

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

Of the active outbreaks, only 29% were in districts that reported having a mask requirement. The outbreaks at schools without mask mandates or that did not report what their mask policies were had clusters with about five to six times as many cases per capita.

"We have studies that show that masks work in kids," said Dena Hubbard, with the Kansas American Academy of Pediatrics. "Now we have data that masks work in prevention of spread in Kansas. Why do we still have this percentage (of schools) that has no mask policy or is encouraged but not required?"

Kasitz, the Wichita school nurse, attributed a drop in cases within Wichita Public Schools to the district's implementation of a mask mandate. However, she continues to get calls from parents who make false claims about masks being dangerous to children.

"It's important to help parents understand," said Stephanie Kuhlmann, a pediatric hospitalist at Wesley Children's Hospital, "that having your child wear masks in school keeps them there in school and it keeps the schools operating and functioning."

Without universal masking, teachers become preoccupied contact tracing and structuring classrooms to avoid close contacts, said Kevin Riemann, executive director of the Kansas National Education Association.

Jennifer Bacani McKenney, the Wilson County health officer, suggested making sure school boards have the data when making decisions.

More:Mask mandate divides Holton: Parents transfer children, taunt school board member before BOE changes course

"I hate to be honest about this ... but our school boards and our administrators have the data," said G.A. Buie, Executive Director, United School Administrators of Kansas. "It's just very difficult with the 'I' mentality of many of the people attending our board meetings and being frustrated with the masking. It's very difficult for those board members to say yes to masking when there's so many people in their ears, follow them out to the parking lots."

"I don't think it's the data piece as much as is a pressure piece."