Kansas state Reps. Kyle Hoffman, left, R-Coldwater, and Ken Rahjes, R-Agra, confer during a House debate on a bill dealing with public schools and COVID-19, Monday, March 15, 2021, at the Statehouse in Topeka. The House has given first-round approval to the measure, which requires all school districts to offer all in-person classes to all students by March 26, 2021. (AP Photo/John Hanna)

TOPEKA, Kan. (AP) — A Republican proposal to require all Kansas public schools to offer every student full in-person classes by March 26 failed Tuesday in the state House after some lawmakers complained that it would take too much power away from local school boards.

The GOP-controlled House's 69-55 vote against the measure showed that some Republicans had misgivings about the proposal, which would have overridden a few local school districts’ decisions to wait longer because of the coronavirus pandemic. Senate President Ty Masterson, an Andover Republican, pushed for the mandate, and his GOP-controlled chamber approved it earlier this month with no Democratic support.

The mandate for the state's 286 local school districts to offer all students full-time in-person classes would have been permanent. Supporters said the state still could grant exceptions when a disaster such as a flood, tornado or fire damages or destroys a school building.

But Democratic Gov. Laura Kelly was skeptical, calling the measure "just something the Legislature didn't need to be spending any time on.”

“The school districts have done a great job of getting the kids back into the classes as quickly as they feel they safely can,” she said Monday after the House debated the bill.

Many Republican lawmakers continue to criticize Kelly for shutting down all K-12 buildings in mid-March 2020 until the end of that spring semester to check the spread of COVID-19. They argue that many students don't do as well academically in online classes and suffer emotionally from being isolated from school friends.

“There's no greater treasure on earth than our children, and these parents are entrusting their greatest treasure to us,” said Rep. Sean Tarwater, a Stilwell Republican. “These local school boards have let these children down.”

GOP legislators also have criticized the governor over other actions she took last spring. They gave final approval Tuesday to a bill that would leave decisions about mandating masks or restricting businesses and public gatherings to county officials.

The measure also would strip appointed county health officers of their power to impose restrictions on their own, requiring county commissions’ approval.

The votes were 118-5 in the House and 31-8 in the Senate and sent the measure to Kelly.

Some lawmakers believed that bill — which would leave decisions on closing school buildings in emergencies to local boards of education — conflicted with Masterson's proposed mandate for in-person classes. He wanted a chance to clarify the issue, calling it a “misunderstanding,” but isn't clear that the House will reconsider.

"I don't know why they'd be voting against parents and kids,” Masterson said.

State Department of Education data showed that only six of the state's 286 local districts do not plan to have a majority of their students returning to all in-person classes by March 26. A seventh district, Wichita, the state's largest, plans to resume in-person classes for all students March 29 but has its spring break next week.

The Baldwin City district near Lawrence has been offering hybrid learning for students between seventh grade and 12th grade since September, school board president Kelley Bethell-Smith said. The school district doesn’t have plans to fully reopen until the fall, she said.

Bethell-Smith said the district's classrooms aren’t large enough to accommodate full in-person learning and maintain social distancing, she said.

“Right now, if you have 10 kids coming in on A day, 10 kids coming on B day, you can space the desks out enough to have six feet of distance. We can accommodate for lunch, when they are unmasked, and keep them six feet apart,” Bethell-Smith said.

Bethell-Smith also said the school district has a shortage of teaching assistants and wouldn’t be able to comply with special education laws.

The Shawnee Heights district in the Topeka area has decided to keep Wednesdays remote for most students, said school board member Eric Deitcher. He said that gives some teachers extra planning time to accommodate students who choose to attend school remotely five days a week. Keeping Wednesdays remote would also allow the school district to disinfect schools, Deitcher said.

But Ben Wilson, a school board member in Valley Center outside Wichita, said he agrees with the bill. The district plans to return to full-time in-person learning by March 30. He said kids are not “super spreaders” of COVID-19 and the district has seen “very, very, loose, if any” evidence of child-to-teacher transmission.

He added that his own children want to return full-time in-person classes.

“They learn better,” he said. "There’s more rhythm to their lives and there’s a sense of normalcy that we haven’t had for a year.”


Andy Tsubasa Field is a corps member for the Associated Press/Report for America Statehouse News Initiative. Report for America is a nonprofit national service program that places journalists in local newsrooms to report on undercovered issues.


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