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Safer Classrooms Workgroup, led by KU School of Medicine-Wichita faculty, ends its work

The group met weekly to present and discuss timely and relevant information regarding COVID-19, children and schools.

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Gov. Laura Kelly talks about the Safer Classrooms Workgroup during a press conference in September at Wesley Children's Hospital with Jennifer Bacani McKenney, M.D., faculty member and associate dean of rural medical education, at left and Stephanie Kuhlmann, D.O., associate professor and pediatric hospitalist division director, at right.

Two KU School of Medicine-Wichita faculty members, both of whom are also alumni, played an important role this fall in providing COVID-19 school safety reports as part of a work group created by Kansas Gov. Laura Kelly.

In September, Kelly announced that her administration’s Safer Classrooms Workgroup would be co-facilitated by Stephanie Kuhlmann, D.O., associate professor and pediatric hospitalist division director at KU School of Medicine-Wichita, and Jennifer Bacani McKenney, M.D., a community faculty member in Fredonia, Kansas. McKenney also serves as the associate dean of rural medical education for KU School of Medicine.

Other physicians, school nurses, psychologists and education officials, including Randy Watson, the Kansas State Department of Education commissioner, were members of the work group. Two other KUSM-Wichita faculty — Lindsay Byrnes, M.D., in the pediatrics department, and Kelli Netson, Ph.D., a neuropsychologist with the Department of Psychiatry & Behavioral Sciences — were part of the 16-member Safer Classrooms Workgroup.

The group met weekly to present and discuss timely and relevant information and data regarding COVID-19, children and schools. The group focused on three key mitigation strategies to help keep schools safely open: masking, testing and vaccinations.

The meetings were livestreamed and are archived on the governor’s YouTube channel. The governor’s office released weekly meeting summaries.

The reports provided data on testing and masking policies, vaccination rates and COVID-19 cases in Kansas schools, along with assessments of COVID-related issues from members such as small-town physician Kristie Clark, M.D., from Ellis County who addressed rural concerns and Kimber Kasitz, a registered nurse and director of health for Wichita Public Schools, who provided insights on running successful vaccination clinics.

Another key component of the report was its “Why this matters and what this means” sections, which offered guidance and suggested courses of action. One of the work group’s charges was to be a resource for schools, communities, policymakers and parents.

For McKenney, that charge was important. As a rural physician, the Wilson County medical officer and local school board member, she knows firsthand how polarizing the pandemic has become and how important it is for citizens to have a trusted source.

“Part of our job (was) to provide awareness and discuss the issues we were hearing around the state in health care and education. We wanted to be a relevant group that was helpful,” said McKenney. “There are a lot of people out there making hard decisions — from school boards to parents — who need guidance on making decisions for kids. We presented the science and data.”

According to the group’s final report on Dec. 8, outbreaks were occurring at greater rates in schools not requiring masks. Also in the Dec. 8 meeting, it was noted that 56% of Kansas kids attend schools with mask requirements, while 24% attend schools that encourage masks. Thirteen percent are in schools with no mask policies. The report also said that 87% of Kansas children attend schools in districts that have either drafted, submitted or have had a testing plan approved. Kansas has provided funding for schools to carry out testing.

For Kuhlmann, the work group offered another way to share data and best practices for keeping Kansas schools open and school children safe.

In spring 2020, Kuhlmann founded the Kansas COVID Workgroup for Kids, an advocacy group that continues meeting. With physicians, school nurses and psychologists comprising the KCWK, the KUSM-Wichita-based group has a similar makeup as the Safer Classrooms Workgroup. McKenney is also a member of the KCWK.

“Schools are important for children and youth not only from an academic standpoint but they also support many of the social and emotional needs for students,” Kuhlmann said. “It is important that we do everything we can to keep our schools open and our kids in the classrooms.”

KU School of Medicine-Wichita