By LUCIE KRISMAN
Kansas schools need mental health resources and continued precautions such as masking and testing, according to Wednesday’s Safer Classrooms Workgroup meeting.
Marci Nielsen, chief COVID-19 coordination adviser to Gov. Laura Kelly, told the group the state’s daily COVID-19 cases have declined through October, along with testing and vaccinations. As of Wednesday, the Kansas Department of Health and Environment reports 426,923 total COVID-19 cases, 14,521 hospitalizations and 6,185 statewide deaths.
Through participation in KDHE’s provided school-based COVID-19 testing, Nielsen said, 595 positive cases have been reported across 102 districts. Active outbreaks decreased from last week’s total of 84 to 56 this week, and Nielsen said there were significantly fewer positive students in schools with mask mandates. The vaccination rate for Kansas youth currently trails the national rate by 7 percentage points, but pending vaccine approval for 5- to 11-year-olds could help those numbers rise, she said.
“There are preventative measures that can help protect your children in school settings and keep those schools open safely, and it does start with vaccination,” Nielsen said. “Good news for Kansas and good news for keeping our schools open, given that this is really our top priority.”
Randy Watson, Kansas commissioner of education, said keeping students in schools takes a three-pronged approach, emphasizing vaccinations, masking and testing. When it comes to student success throughout the pandemic, Watson said the largest losses on a state level have been decreases in academic achievement (specifically in mathematics), social skills, and numbers of students opting for secondary education after graduation. Federal funds have been set aside to offset those losses, he said, with more than 90% of federal and state relief dollars going directly to school districts.
“We’re still in the hurricane,” Watson said. “But we’re starting to respond for what does it look like when the sun comes out after the hurricane, and what we do to mitigate the loss that we’re having so far.”
During a facilitated discussion period, group members discussed the declaration of a national mental health emergency and how it affects Kansas, following the U.S. Department of Education’s guide for how schools can implement mental health resources.
Dena Hubbard of Children’s Mercy hospital in Kansas City said this is an opportunity for Kansas to invest in the mental health challenges that have been exacerbated by the pandemic, such as neglect and abuse of children. As a mother, she said, she has seen the effects of mental health challenges firsthand and schools would benefit from partnering with state providers to implement mental health services.
“It is real, and we are all experiencing a collective trauma,” she said. “I hope that one of the silver linings from the pandemic is that we are going to treat the brain as any other organ, and we are going to invest in our children and their emotional well being as part of their overall health.”
Kelli Netson-Amore of the University of Kansas School of Medicine-Wichita said the pandemic has shown how communities rely on schools for vital services, such as communicating with children face-to-face, monitoring for child abuse and providing children with food. Wichita has recently seen new programs for psychologists to work with children and health care systems in schools, she said, and these programs help normalize seeking mental health assistance while minimizing the distance a student has to travel.
“I think continuing to do some of those things helps in the short-term and the long-term,” Netson-Amore said. “Everybody’s doing the best they can, but we absolutely have to prioritize keeping these kids alive.”
When it comes to easing restrictions such as masking throughout the state’s schools, Hubbard said it would be wise for Kansas schools to wait for vaccine approval for younger students first. She noted that while public health guidance around COVID-19 has changed over time as more information has become available, keeping students protected will keep them from experiencing more challenges from the pandemic.
“With a novel virus like this, in leadership, you have to act with speed and not precision,” Hubbard said. “If we want to keep kids safe and healthy, protect them, and improve their development and their academic work, we have to get a handle on this pandemic. And the way to do it are the things that you outline at the very beginning and end of every one of these: vaccines, masks and testing.”