Kansas' Most Populous County Mandates Masks For K-6 Schools

TOPEKA, Kan. (AP) — Kansas’ most populous county on Thursday imposed a mask mandate for students and staff in elementary schools in the hopes of keeping in check the more contagious COVID-19 delta variant.

The Johnson County Commission voted 5-2 for a mask requirement for schools from kindergarten through the sixth grade. The commission faced criticism from health care providers who urged members to go further and from some parents and other residents who opposed a mask mandate.

Johnson County has six public school districts that serve about 96,000 students, or 20% of the state’s total. The mandate would affect roughly 50,000 students.

“We all want our schools open,” commission Chairman Ed Eilert said during a live-streamed meeting. “We all want out kids in school, learning.”

Critics questioned whether the commission can set policy for school districts. Many of the 90-plus people who signed up to make public comments said parents should decide whether their children wear them or questioned the effectiveness of masks, despite studies showing that wearing them slows the spread of COVID-19.

Kansas has seen new COVID-19 case numbers rise steadily over the past six weeks because of the delta variant.

Delta variant cases have been confirmed in 83 of the state’s 105 counties, including 12 just this week. Confirmed delta variant cases have grown five-fold over the past month, to more than 1,900 as of Wednesday, according to state data, with more than 200 in Johnson County.

But top Republican lawmakers said Thursday that they do not plan to require legislators and their staff members to wear masks in the Statehouse.

House Speaker Ron Ryckman Jr., an Olathe Republican, criticized Democratic Gov. Laura Kelly’s decision to impose a mask mandate for state government workers and visitors to state buildings, saying that she does not control the Statehouse and that the mandate encroaches on lawmakers' constitutional authority.

In Wichita, meanwhile, the Sedgwick County Sheriff's Office reported that a 60-year-old county jail inmate died Thursday after being hospitalized and testing positive for COVID-19.

It said inmate Lester L. Jacobs had a “chronic medical issue” and was hospitalized after a decrease in his ability to function. The office did not say whether he was vaccinated against COVID-19 and declined to list a preliminary cause of death until an autopsy is done.

Jacobs had been booked into the jail on July 16 and was charged with failing to register as a violent offender as required by law.