OVERLAND PARK, Kan. — Wednesday, Sept. 9, marks the first day of school for students in the Blue Valley School District, but what that first day will look like will vary.
On Friday, the district announced that elementary school students will start the year with hybrid learning, which includes some in-person learning.
Middle and high school students will start the year with virtual learning.
“Our goal is to get the kids back in session. This is not something that we hope happens for the whole year," said Tonya Merrigan, superintendent of the Blue Valley School District. "We're going to continually reassess this and as soon as it is safe, we are going to bring kids back into school."
Elementary school students in hybrid learning will be split into two groups based on the last name of the oldest child in the family.
Group A will consist of students with last names in the A-L range in the alphabet, while Group B will use last names M-Z.
For the first week of classes, which runs from Wednesday, Sept. 9 to Friday, Sept. 11, the district will use a modified schedule:
- Wednesday, Sept. 9: Group A in-person classes, Group B distance learning;
- Thursday, Sept. 10: Group A distance learning, Group B in-person classes;
- Friday, Sept. 11: Distance learning for both groups.
After the first week, Group A will have in-person classes on Mondays and Tuesdays while Group B will go to school from home.
On Thursdays and Fridays, Group B will have in-person classes and Group A will learn virtually.
All elementary students will use virtual learning on Wednesdays.
This plan will last four weeks, and on Oct 2, the district will reevaluate if it's safe for all students to return to in-person classes.
This plan does not apply to students who chose to use the all-virtual option, VirtualED.
As part of Friday's announcement, the district will suspend all in-person activities and athletics for the next two weeks. Current activities and athletic practices will conclude on Aug. 22.
"We know the benefit of sports and activities. That is such a vital part of high school experience, and so we will continue to evaluate that as well,” Merrigan said. “We have not canceled anything at this point. We will evaluate it in two weeks and see where we're at and if we have improved our levels, we will absolutely get kids back out on the field practicing or involved in band or whatever the activity happens to be.”
The Blue Valley National Education Association supports remote learning. The group released this statement to 41 Action News:
"We as a community have a shared responsibility to protect students, their families and the educators that care for them. Addressing the safety of educators, along with the safety of students, protects families and communities and protects the stability and quality of the learning environment. There is not a right answer or one answer to reopening schools, but we advocate for a safe answer backed by medical experts. Educators want to educate all students safely and equitably, this year and for all the years to come."
The decision is not what many parents wanted to hear.
The district released an initial plan on July 22 that included registration options for both in-person and hybrid models. The response revealed that 73% of parents said they wanted in-person. The district said that option could include hybrid or distance learning if health officials guided them in that direction.
High school students could also opt for a mixed learning experience, at-home and virtual.
"Look at your constituents. Seventy-three percent of us said we are willing to take the risk," Christine Vasquez, a mother of five, said. "We see the greater risk emotionally, socially and educationally for our kids to stay home. And let us choose."
Vasquez is worried about the emotional toll distance learning will continue to have on her kids.
"Dealing with that as a mama, but jumping from junior year to freshman to fifth grade to second grade, then I have a 2-year-old — it's just not something I can handle," Vasquez said.
Families gathered at Blue Valley Northwest High School on Tuesday to demand the district allow students to return to classes in person.
"We’re asking you to give us the choice,” Michelle Mitchell, a parent, told the school board on Tuesday. "Let us evaluate the risks and do what's best for our families."
Athletes from the district also gathered on Tuesday to urge district officials to let fall sports continue.
"Playing high school sports is a voluntary action,” Ethan Hunt, a Blue Valley Northwest soccer player, said on Tuesday. “Those who don't feel safe, they have the option to opt out. However, for those of us who decide to participate, I promise you that the student-athletes of Blue Valley will follow any health and safety precautions.”
Merrigan said many parents who want their students to be physically in the classroom are concerned for their child's mental well-being.
"Mental health is a focus of ours, has been a focus of ours for years, and I'm a former school counselor, so it's not lost on me that the mental health of our students — all of our students — is at utmost importance,” Merrigan said. “We will continue to reach out to students and to work with students. We have amazing counselors and social workers who are already figuring out different ways that they can reach out to students and continue to meet their needs.”
The district made this decision despite recommendations from the Johnson County Health Department for area districts to begin classes virtually due to the continued rise of COVID-19 cases.