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September 27th, 2021

kansas state sealELLY GRIMM • Leader & Times


Concerns are continuing to be raised about COVID-19 spreading in classrooms and recently, the State of Kansas began a work group to help with just that. 

The announcement of the Safer Classrooms work group came from Gov. Laura Kelly earlier this month. 

“Children are catching the virus, being hospitalized, and dying from COVID at increasingly higher rates. There’s nothing more important than keeping our students healthy and in the classroom,” Gov. Kelly noted in a release from the State of Kansas. “The Safer Classrooms Workgroup will provide information and guidance to give parents, teachers, school boards, and others the tools they need to make informed decisions to protect our students and our communities. We got our kids back in school by listening to health professionals, wearing masks, implementing stringent public health protocol, and getting vaccinated. We’ll keep them there by continuing to follow the best health practices. I encourage all Kansans to get vaccinated as soon as possible.”

Dr. Marci Nielsen, chief advisor for COVID-19 coordination, said there has been an increased sense of urgency since the school year began. 

“There's a real sense of urgency and concern among parents and school districts and the rest of the general public about what's happening with COVID-19 and the Delta variant and the increase in numbers that has been seen recently,” Nielsen said. “There's also been too much misinformation that's been put out there, so this is a chance for us, along with health professionals and education leaders, to share the true data and numbers about what's going on so teachers and students and other professionals can have access to it. The Safer Classrooms Workgroup will be composed of pediatricians, family physicians, school nurses, pharmacists, school psychologists, and other health professionals, and we will meet weekly to highlight the urgency of protecting kids from the Delta variant and share ways to mitigate the spread of COVID-19.”

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Nielsen also talked about how the group began and some of the goals. 

“Our plan is to, every week, release a School Safety Report to serve as a resource for media, parents, schools, communities, and policymakers,” Nielsen said. “Information in this weekly report will include timely and relevant policies on testing and masking in schools and best practices that can be shared across school districts, updates on school districts with clearly communicated quarantine, testing, and masking policies, to ensure parents and families have what they need to know to keep their children safe, information on school district vaccination and testing events (with resources to help schools plan, publicize, and implement), county-level data on youth vaccinations, cases, hospitalizations, and deaths, and schools with active outbreaks.”

Overall, Nielsen said, the main goal is helping keep schoolchildren safe. 

“First and foremost, we want to highlight the importance of protecting the children, so the first goal is for the weekly meeting launching some good discussion about that and be a good place for parents to go to for information,” Nielsen said. “We want people to have a broader sense of what's going on throughout Kansas because the anecdotal reports are somewhat confusing for the public, so we want to clear some things up. There are certain ways we have to officially track outbreaks from an epidemiological perspective, and there are some other factors that need to be kept in mind, and it will help make that dialogue more clear. Something else that's really important is we want to help empower communities and school systems and clinicians so they have the most up-to-date information about how they can mitigate COVID-19 and what the Kansas Department of Health and Environment (KDHE) is recommending, and once those recommendations are implemented, what's the success rate? There are also some other resources available to help with that, and we'll be working with those resources to help with all of that. We'll be around for as long as we need to keep meeting as long as the pandemic is still going on. The plan right now is to meet once a week as we continue to see an increase in the number of cases and pediatric hospitalizations, getting those numbers down is a top priority. As we see better management and the number of vaccinations go up, and as we see FDA expanding vaccine approval to children younger than 12 years old, hopefully we'll be able to wind these meetings to a less frequent basis.”

Nielsen said she is proud of the group’s work so far, and she added she hopes to continue seeing progress as time goes on. 

“We're very proud of the work already being done through this group, and I'm looking forward to seeing what else we can do through this group. We're working hard to continue spreading the word about what we're doing, and we're going to work as hard as we can at protecting Kansas schoolchildren,” Nielsen said. “Dr. Jennifer Bacani McKenney, a practicing Family Physician and Wilson County health officer, and Dr. Stephanie Kuhlmann, Pediatric Hospitalist Division Director at the KU School of Medicine-Wichita and Pediatric Medical Director at Wesley Children’s Hospital, will serve as the group’s co-chairs. Other members of the work group include G.A. Buie, Executive Director, United School Administrators of Kansas, Jen Brull, MD, Family Physician, Post Rock Family Medicine, Lindsay Byrnes, MD, MPH, Medical Director, KUSM-Wichita, Wesley Children’s Hospital, Kristie Clark, MD, Pediatrician, Rural Health Clinic, Allen Greiner, MD, Family Physician, Wyandotte County Health, Dena Hubbard, MD, Kansas American Academy of Pediatrics, Rhonda Hutchinson, BSN, RN, President, Kansas School Nurse Organization, Kimber Kasitz, BSN, RN, Director of Health, Homebound, and Section 504 Services, USD 259, Vernon Mills, MD, Pediatrician, retired, Kelli Netson, PhD, Neuropsychologist, KUSM-W Department of Psychiatry and Behavioral Sciences, Kevin Riemann, Executive Director, Kansas National Education Association, Manuel Solano, MD, Physician and program director, Community Health Center of Wyandotte County, Margaret Thompson, RN, ARNP, Nurse Anesthetist, Kansas Black Nurses Association, and Randy Watson, Ed.D, Commissioner, Kansas State Department of Education.”

Nielsen added some other information for parents to keep in mind. 

“We want parents to know what all they can do to help protect their children. We've had a lot of conversations, and will continue to have conversations, about masks and hygiene and cleaning and things like that,” Nielsen said. “We also want parents to know what the latest science is saying, and what could be some potential other effects on children with all of this. We want parents and communities to know what the best practices are based on the science, and we want them to know what's going on in their own school district(s). We also want to share the word about other resources and information they can access. We're very glad to be able to have these conversations and share this information in a more public and far-reaching setting, so we're very fortunate there was already a dialogue started with this among people who were focused on these issues. We're all focused on protecting children, and we want parents and communities to have access to that information in an easier, more digestible way. The overall picture is changing, and changing so quickly, that we don't blame the public for feeling a bit of whiplash from all the information that's being shared. We feel really fortunate because this group has been meeting for some time, it was meeting before the official announcement of everything.”

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