KANSAS CITY, Mo. — UPDATE, 10:50 p.m. | The Shawnee Mission School Board voted Tuesday night to allow Superintendent Mike Fulton the freedom to be more strict on academics and learning modes than those recommended by the Johnson County Department of Health and Environment.
The district's current learning mode has students in kindergarten through sixth grade in school buildings and students in grades seven through 12 on a hybrid schedule.
The board also voted to give Fulton the choice to be more strict than current health department guidelines for sports and activities.
The district is allowing winter sports and activities.
EARLIER | The rate of COVID-19 infections in Johnson County is “increasing exponentially,” prompting the Shawnee Mission School District to revisit gating criteria used to determine when students can return to the classroom – as more than 800 students and staff are isolating or in quarantine.
"We can't pretend our schools aren't part of the community. We say community spread, but the school community is huge," said Jennifer Coleman, a parent and teacher in the district.
Coleman organized a rally before the school board meeting calling for remote learning.
"I wouldn't necessarily say I'm concerned for the safety of my own child, but it's starting to feel like we have a social responsibility to do a little more to curtail this," another parent, Jon Riekenberg, said.
Dr. Sanmi Areola, director of the Johnson County Department of Health and Environment, said the majority of the virus’ spread is occurring outside of schools, but that still can put a strain on school districts to keep their doors open.
“There's a point where we are going to make recommendations,” Areola said. “I will say, we are very concerned — very, very concerned — not about the health and safety of students, about the health and safety of teachers and staff, but the safety of our residents in general. The numbers are high. That increases risk for everyone.”
Of SMSD's active isolations, 315 are students, while 53 are staff members and are considered to be positive, presumed positive or experiencing COVID-19 symptoms. Those in quarantine – 383 students and 74 staff – were possibly exposed to the virus.
Between Oct. 26 and Nov. 9, nearly 500 Pre-K through sixth grade students were affected compared to roughly 225 in seventh through 12th grades. On Oct. 12 and Oct. 19, less than 100 seventh through 12th graders were in isolation or quarantine. In the same date range, roughly 125 pre-K through sixth grade students were affected Oct. 12 compared to about 75 the following week.
In late October, the number of students in isolation or quarantine began to spike, according to SMSD data.
Last week alone, the county saw more than 1,820 COVID-19 cases, according to Areola. He said the community was doing a good job before, when weekly cases were between 627 and 810 from the end of July to the end of October.
The SMSD Board of Education, SMSD Superintendent Dr. Mike Fulton and JCDHE officials met Tuesday night to discuss the gating criteria recommendations and how to apply them.
"Our community did not get their act together, and we are going to have to make some really hard choices really soon," School Board President Heather Ousley said. "And so get your plans in place for what you have to do."
Earlier this month, JCDHE shifted into the “red zone” on its COVID-19 dashboard, but did not recommend schools change their learning models.
"A lot of the spread we are seeing occurring outside of our schools," said Areola, who reiterated that the recommendations the county puts forth are just that.
“There are benefits to social interactions, being in the classroom, playing sports, learning in person, mental health,” he said. “They don’t have to follow the gating criteria, it's supposed to be a recommendation and weigh that with other factors.”
"We feel like things are unsustainable right now," Marcus Baltzell said, spokesperson for the Kansas National Education Association. "We need to listen to and trust the professionals who work most closely with students. Those are the teachers in the classroom."
Baltzell said it's difficult for teachers to manage their in-person and remote classes and take on more students because teachers are out sick or quarantining.
One factor district leaders addressed in detail was staffing.
This year, according to district data, there have been a record number of teachers who have retired, resigned, filed for Family Medical Leave Act or leave of absences because of the pandemic. The district also is struggling to place substitute teachers in classrooms.
"We are looking at our internal numbers, and if they continue to get worse then at some point, it’s probably going to force our hand on a decision about if we are going to move to remote only," Fulton said.