Kansas Governor Laura Kelly recently said she makes “no apologies” for Covid-19 school closures shortly after several pro-lockdown teachers’ unions endorsed her reelection campaign.
Kelly announced last Wednesday that several education advocacy groups had endorsed her, including Kansas National Education Association (KNEA), Kansas American Federation of Teachers (AFT), and United Teachers of Wichita (UTW).
Later that day, Kelly spoke at a Kansas Chamber of Commerce Candidate Conversations event where she defended the state’s school lockdowns.
“We in Kansas had to take a look at what do we know, what do we have, and what we need to do to make sure we keep our people safe,” Kelly said.
“So, when I look at what we did, I know everybody thinks about the sort of dramatic decision to close our schools and to be the first governor to close them for the entire year,” she added. “I’ll make no apologies for that.”
She again said she makes no apologies for the lockdowns at an appearance at the Kansas State Fair debate on Saturday.
In March 2020, Kansas became the first state to end in-person instruction for the year under Kelly. The governor then tried to delay the start of public and private school instruction in fall 2020 for three weeks because of Covid-19, but the move was ultimately blocked by the state board of education.
Republican Jim Denning, a former member of the state senate, wrote a column on Thursday criticizing Kelly over the school closures.
“Kelly calls herself the ‘education governor. Truth is, no governor has presided over more damage to Kansas students in our state’s history,” the Republican wrote.
Though Kelly has defended the lockdowns, students have developed lasting struggles with both academics and their mental health as a result of the school closures.
More than 34 percent of Kansas students are testing at the lowest possible level in math, according to data from the state department of education. Thirty percent of students are testing at the lowest level in reading.
Meanwhile, a record-high number of teens in the state — 32 percent — said they have seriously considered suicide. That represents a nearly 40 percent increase since 2015.
The state NEA chapter and AFT — both of which advocated for school closures during the pandemic — have previously donated the maximum amount allowed under state law to Kelly’s campaign accounts.
Even after the American Academy of Pediatrics said it would be safe for students to return to in-person instruction in fall 2020, both NEA president Becky Pringle and AFT president Randi Weingarten pushed to keep schools closed.
Pringle, who was elected as union president in September 2020, said at the time that “it is unacceptable to open even one unsafe school.”
She told Politico in October 2020 that the union would demand strict Covid-19 mitigation measures through strikes, protests, and sickouts, as well as by backing lawsuits blocking efforts to reopen in red states.
Kelly is running for a second term in November against Derek Schmidt, the current Kansas attorney general.
Schmidt said in a statement on Monday that the teachers’ unions endorsements of Kelly “come as no surprise as these pro-lockdown groups bankroll Laura Kelly’s campaigns.”
“Long after the experts told us we could safely open schools, Governor Kelly instead chose the extreme demands of her political bosses over Kansas kids,” Schmidt added.