As school districts across the country grapple with how and when to reopen safely during the coronavirus pandemic, the Kansas State Board of Education rejected Gov. Laura Kelly's executive order delaying the start of the school year despite rising cases of COVID-19 in the state.
In a virtual meeting on Wednesday, the 10-person board effectively blocked the order, which would have barred any public and private school K-12 instruction from Aug. 10 to Sept. 8, in a split vote. School districts can now decide when they want to start the school year for more than half a million students.
Kelly announced the executive order last week before releasing details on Monday. The additional three weeks, she said, would provide schools time to obtain supplies like masks, thermometers and hand sanitizer, as well as review curriculum options on in-person, hybrid and virtual learning that the state's board of education released last week.
A law enacted last month by the Republican-controlled state legislature required the board to approve the Democratic governor's executive order for school reopening.
Following the vote, Kelly said the decision "puts our students, faculty, their families and our economy at risk."
"The cases of COVID-19 in Kansas are at an all-time high and continue to rise. Our decisions must be informed by public health experts not politics," the governor said in a statement.
Kansas currently has 24,104 confirmed cases of COVID-19, according to state data. Since early June, cases have been steadily on the rise in the state. On July 13, Kansas saw a record number of new cases, with 1,447, according to The COVID Tracking Project.
During Wednesday's board meeting, Kelly's chief of staff, Will Lawrence, said the delay would give the state time to "flatten the curve."
In voting for the order, Ann E. Mah said, "I want to be on the right side of history on this one."
Jim Porter pointed out the irony of the members deciding on the "wisdom" of sending students and staff back to school "from the comfort and safety of our own homes," before voting yes on the order.
Those opposed to the delay argued that districts, especially rural ones that don't have outbreaks, should make their own decision on reopening.
"This virus is not the same across the state," Jean Clifford said before voting against the order.
Reacting on social media, some Kansans said they were "horrified" and "disappointed" by the order's rejection, while others argued that this is not a "one-size-fits-all decision" and hoped that districts do "what is best for their students and staff."
Ahead of Wednesday's vote, some school districts had already announced plans to delay the start of the school year. On Tuesday, the school board in Kansas City, Kansas, voted to start school on Sept. 9, with virtual learning for the first nine weeks. The school district is seated in Wyandotte County, which has the second-highest number of COVID-19 cases in the state. Last week, Topeka's school board also approved a plan to reopen remotely on Sept. 9.
Other school districts are still reviewing their plans, including Olathe in hard-hit Johnson County, which has the highest number of cases in the state. Wichita, the largest school district in Kansas, has yet to release its plan, but had said it was looking to have students start in-person in August.