Southeast Kansas doctor named co-chair of new Kansas Safer Classrooms work group

Jennifer Bacani Mckenney
Photo of Dr. Jennifer Bacani McKenney. Courtesy: Kansas Health Foundation

WILSON COUNTY, Kan. – As we trudge further into the school year, more districts throughout Kansas get hit with COVID cases.

The Associated Press reports in the Wellington school district in south-central Kansas, schools were shuttered and sports practices canceled after there were at least 40 positive cases in the first eight days of school, and outbreaks were identified in three of the district’s six buildings.

The latest district to make changes is Chanute.

“We’ve had some positive cases and certainly some exposures,” says Chanute Schools Superintendent Kellen Adams.

The Chanute School District will require students and staff to wear masks inside school buildings starting Monday, along with other changes. The change comes after 49 students test positive, and 219 are identified as close contacts in roughly three weeks. The superintendent says the change is being made because of a drop in attendance.

Chanute Public Schools September 2nd Press Release

“It had dropped right around seven percent from what would have been the matching week a year ago. That’s a big enough percentage to at least look at the issue again,” says Adams.

While the district does not know with certainty where students were exposed, Adams explains they are confident the drop in attendance is because of a mixture of policy changes and decisions by parents.

“The policy this year was if and when you are deemed a close contact, you can do one of two things. It was originally mask or test. It later became mask and test,” says Adams. “When we shifted to mask and test, we saw a higher percentage of students not joining us and electing instead to just go with the ten days out.”

Chanute’s gating committee, made up of the district, Neosho County Health Department, and Neosho Memorial Regional Medical Center will evaluate the policy changes at their meeting on the 8th. Adams explains that Wednesdays are their normal weekly meeting dates.

“I am glad that schools and school boards are re-evaluating. It is unfortunate because we also are using kind of the first week or two of school to say, well let’s just see what happens,” says Dr. Jennifer Bacani McKenney.

Dr. Jennifer Bacani McKenney is the Wilson County Health Officer and is a physician in Fredonia. She doesn’t like to see the trajectory that cases in many schools are taking. In a report from August 26th, the American Academy of Pediatrics recorded around 204 thousand new cases of Covid in children in a week. Monday, August 30th, Children’s Mercy in Kansas City reported their hospital had reached capacity. September 2nd, they report 11 patients in the hospital.

“The research is out there already. We don’t need our kids for experimentation. So we really need to use the science, use the data out there. We saw what happened last year. We barely had any flu, we barely had any RSV. That’s not a coincidence. That’s because we were masking,” explains Dr. McKenney. “And already we’re seeing flu, RSV. We had one patient the other day who had flu, RSV, and COVID all at the same time. And unfortunately, that’s what we’re gonna see if we just keep passing these things around. Our hospitals are already full. It’s already hard to find a place to transfer patients if they’re very sick. So we have to do everything we can to prevent the hospitalizations so that we don’t get to that point where we’re not providing adequate care.”

Now she hopes to cut through rampant misinformation and help schools correct course before their situations turn into a crisis. Dr. McKenney was just named co-chair of the state’s new Safer Classrooms Work Group, a group of healthcare professionals with the goal of gathering COVID-19 related data from schools and providing recommendations and guidance on how to navigate this stage of the pandemic.

“Yes we want them in school, but yes we need them safe, we need them healthy, we need them alive. That has to trump everything,” says Dr. McKenney. “I’m hopeful that we will be able to take that data and analyze it and share our guidance to get schools to act before they get to that point where there are too many sick kids.”

“We’ve really gotten away from the science and data and relying on that, and so it’s kind of bringing us back to say science and data is important. That can guide us, and is the thing that should guide us through the rest of the pandemic to get us out of it.”

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