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Coronavirus

While Mask Debates Simmer, Kansas Schools Brace For Another Year Of Possible Quarantines

The gloved hands of someone conducting a COVID test.
Courtesy photo
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courtesy of Kansas Department of Health and Environment
Some Kansas school districts plan to use rapid-response COVID-19 tests to track infections and control the spread.

Greater access to rapid-response COVID tests, combined with vaccines for the 12-and-older crowd, means widespread quarantines should prove less likely this year.

WICHITA, Kansas — Kansas public school students will return to class soon amid a surge in COVID-19 cases fueled by the delta variant.

While debates still rage over whether students and teachers should be required to wear face masks, school officials are looking ahead to another potential quandary: What should they do if an even worse outbreak happens anyway?

The Kansas Department of Health and Environment urged districts to adopt rapid-testing protocols aimed at keeping more students learning in person, even after a potential exposure to COVID-19.

The supply of COVID-19 tests and the tests themselves have improved since last year. That lets schools offer on-site testing and get results within 20 minutes, without having to send samples to a lab.

That, combined with COVID vaccines for the 12-and-older crowd, means widespread quarantines should prove less likely this year.

“Wherever a (school) nurse is, there will be the ability to test,” said Terri Moses, the director of safety and environmental services for the Wichita school district.

If somebody has the sniffles or thinks they may have been exposed to COVID-19, they can take a test right away, she said. If they test negative and don’t have COVID symptoms, they can return to the classroom.

“What that allows us to do is have a sense of comfort,” Moses said. “It allows a person to go back to work or back to school because they have tested and they’re confident they don’t have COVID.”

Kansas has about $87 million in federal aid to fund equipment, testing and medical staff to prevent the spread of COVID-19 in schools.

Some rural districts plan to use the money to transport staff between school buildings or to transport sick children. Others are holding vaccination events or offering incentives to get the shot.

Many, like Wichita, plan to keep hundreds of rapid-response self-tests on hand in schools.

The Wichita and Emporia districts were test sites for the antigen self-tests last spring. They offered free tests to students, employees and anyone in their households.

“Our idea was, if we wanted to keep teachers teaching, if we wanted to keep bus drivers driving, we needed to make sure they and their families were safe from COVID,” said Kelly Bolin, assistant superintendent of human resources for Emporia schools.

Wichita’s COVID response plan relies heavily on testing. A complex flow chart guides how school officials will handle suspected cases, with different protocols depending on vaccination status and risk level.

usd259 covid protocol.jpg
Courtesy photo
The Wichita school district's COVID-19 protocol for the 2021-22 school year allows students and employees to remain in the classroom after an exposure as long as they test negative daily and don't have COVID symptoms.

Vaccinated people or those who have tested positive within the past six months would not have to quarantine after an exposure as long as they remain symptom-free.

Unvaccinated people could stay in the classroom as well, as long as they wear a mask, are symptom-free and test negative every day for seven days.

People under quarantine for a high-risk contact could return to in-person school and other activities if they test negative on Day 6.

Moses, a member of Wichita’s pandemic team, said the district is ready to alter plans if necessary. They have experience with that.

Last year, widespread staff absences and a shortage of substitute teachers forced the district to go fully remote from late November to mid-January.

“People are optimistic to get back into the classrooms and to get back into that opportunity to interact again,” she said. “But it’s a cautious optimism because we know COVID’s hanging out there.”

Suzanne Perez reports on education for KMUW in Wichita and the Kansas News Service. You can follow her on Twitter @SuzPerezICT or email her at perez (at) kmuw (dot) org.

The Kansas News Service is a collaboration of KCUR, Kansas Public Radio, KMUW and High Plains Public Radio focused on health, the social determinants of health and their connection to public policy. Kansas News Service stories and photos may be republished by news media at no cost with proper attribution and a link to ksnewsservice.org.