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Wichita, Maize school boards meet tonight on reopening guidelines

By Chance Swaim, the Wichita Eagle, original article link

As Wichita Public Schools and surrounding area districts grapple with starting classes during a pandemic, they have adopted a patchwork of strategies that have left some parents, teachers and students on standby weeks before the opening bell.

Even the Sedgwick County health officer isn’t quite sure what to expect.

“I would say that opening the schools is a big question mark,” County Health Officer Dr. Garold Minns told the County Commission on Wednesday. “It’s hard to predict what will happen. I think everyone appears to be committed to at least giving it a try.”

Minns issued a public health order that’s in effect until Sept. 8 requiring masks in public for everyone older than age 5, including in school settings. He said mask orders should be extended until a treatment or vaccine is widely available, which isn’t likely until 2021, but the orders may be changed by the County Commission.

Minns said he would meet with superintendents of Sedgwick County’s 10 school districts Wednesday afternoon to discuss reopening. He would not tell commissioners what his recommendations were.

Wichita school district teachers, parents and students should get more answers Thursday evening during a special meeting of the school board, where the board is expected to approve an official plan.

Wichita is considering moving all high school classes online based on local coronavirus numbers and allowing elementary and middle school students to return to in-person classes. Before today’s meeting, the Wichita school board will have a workshop with physicians at 5 p.m.

The official school board meeting starts at 6 p.m. It is closed to the public due to the pandemic, but it will be available live on WPS-TV on Cox Channel 20, online at www.usd259.org/wpstvonline or by searching WPS-TV on the Livestream app for phone, Roku and Apple TV. The workshop with physicians will be available on WPS-TV, and later on YouTube.

Kansas has no uniform approach to safely returning to school in the fall — or even when to start — after the State Board of Education punted decisions about reopening to more than 200 individual districts across the state.

Adding to the anxiety, each district has indicated that plans are subject to change while criteria for loosening or tightening restrictions remains unclear.

In Wichita and the surrounding area, that state decision has left tens of thousands to navigate returning to school without a reliable roadmap. Wichita delayed its start to the school year until after Labor Day, although sports practices have been allowed to begin, while smaller districts such as Cheney, 20 miles west of downtown Wichita, had its first day of class Wednesday.

Several key details about school reopening remain undecided by Wichita and the surrounding school districts, including what to do about sports, elective classes such as art, band and music.

The lack of clarity follows decisions in Kansas City, Kansas, and Wyandotte public schools systems to cancel fall sports and some schools in Johnson County to start the school year online for all students.

Wichita announced earlier this week that it was canceling athletic competitions with teams that aren’t in the City League. The school board will decide Thursday whether to have fall sports at all this year, as public health officials warn that contact sports will undoubtedly accelerate the spread of the virus.

“I would say sports that don’t have close contact would be pretty safe,” Minns said. “I have concerns about contact sports like football. I know that’s very close to many people’s hearts, and I know a lot of students want to compete in that. … It’s really not possible to do much separation on the field; the purpose of a football game is to get close to your opponent, so it’s a big unknown.”

Also unclear is what metric each school district will use to decide if and when it should change from in-person to online classes.

In Johnson County, the state’s most populous county, the health department uses two gating criteria to drive the reopening plan for schools: the percent of positive tests and the trend in the number of new cases. And its school districts have promised two to four weeks notice before changing from in-person to remote or hybrid classes.

Some smaller districts such as Cheney are in a single ZIP code, where COVID-19 numbers are easy to track on the Sedgwick County Health Department dashboard. Cheney schools’ plan will rely on the Health Department dashboard to determine whether to move students to online classes.

But using the dashboard with any degree of certainty could prove a challenge for other districts whose numbers are combined with the rest of the county.

The Health Department releases percent-positive testing data — one metric used to track community spread for school reopening plans in some areas — at the county level, with no breakdown by city or by ZIP code over time.

That means coronavirus cases in more densely populated areas could inflate the numbers for smaller districts while more testing in areas with fewer cases could make the numbers look better for districts with high infection rates.

All 10 of Sedgwick County’s school districts rely on the same rolling 14-day average of positive tests percentage. On Wednesday, that number was 9.7%, nearly double the rate recommended by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention before opening schools.

Unlike some school districts in Johnson County — which have moved classes online to start the year, saying they’ll return students to classes as COVID-19 rates decline — most of Sedgwick County’s school districts have taken the opposite approach.

Many districts will start the year with face-to-face instruction and move online as COVID-19 cases get worse.

Most districts in Sedgwick County offer some version of an online learning platform for students who don’t want to risk spreading the virus to start the year.

The mishmash of reopening strategies has formed after the Kansas Board of Education left re-opening plans to local school districts. Gov. Laura Kelly was the first governor in the nation to close schools in the spring before cases surged throughout the state. But she signed over most of her emergency response powers to local authorities during negotiations with legislative leaders.

“In Sedgwick County, the governor suspended schools early on and so we are getting ready to enter a phase that we’ve never been in before,” Minns said. “And so there’s a lot of unknowns about what the effect of opening the schools is going to have on kids getting the disease, on transmission to others in the family unit and outside.”

Here are some of the Wichita-area reopening plans, based on school district websites:

ANDOVER

Andover, like Wichita, moved back its start date to Sept. 8 and its school board approved a reopening plan on July 30.

Andover plans to stagger the start of its school year, with half its students coming in on the first day and the other half coming in on the second day. Students are grouped into two groups, A and B. Group A starts school Sept. 8 and group B starts Sept. 9.

The plan called for elementary students to attend classes in person, with masks, extra cleaning and “social distancing when possible” while middle and high school students start the year going to class two days a week and attending classes online the rest of the week.

Andover outlined three tracks for the school year. Students could start classes in-person and move to a hybrid learning model as the virus spreads, allowing students to learn online three days a week and attend in-person classes twice a week. Students could also transition to full-time remote learning through online classes and “learning packets.”

Students in all grades had the option to enroll in virtual learning through the Andover eCademy, according to the district’s website, although the deadline has passed to transfer to that learning platform, according to the Andover eCademy website.

Elementary students “will remain in a cohort group as much as possible.”

“If mandated by the health department or government entity, or through action by the Andover Board of Education, pivoting to hybrid or remote learning may be required if conditions warrant.”

CHENEY

Bucking Gov. Laura Kelly’s recommendation to delay the start of the school year until after Labor Day, Cheney started in-person classes on Wednesday.

To decide when and if to transition to remote learning or a hybrid model, the district 30 miles west of downtown Wichita will rely on the Sedgwick County Health Department’s data on ZIP code 67025, a population of 3,780 where 299 COVID-19 tests have been run and 10 positive cases have been found.

Cheney considers its students to currently be at “low risk” for spreading the coronavirus in school. If the numbers get worse, Cheney schools will move to a hybrid learning environment, with students attending face-to-face classes on some days and online on others. If it gets worse than that, the district will move to remote learning.

CLEARWATER

Clearwater schools are scheduled to start Sept. 1 and will offer both in-person and online classes.

Clearwater, 30 mile southwest of Wichita, was home to a large coronavirus cluster early in the pandemic that resulted in several deaths at a nursing home.

The Clearwater area has a population of 4,802, according to the Sedgwick County COVID-19 dashboard for ZIP code 67026. At least 73 people have been infected with the virus and 622 have been tested.

“Knowing that conditions may change over the course of the school year, students and families choosing to participate in the Face-to-Face model should be aware that as community conditions change from low, moderate, or high risk, this model may not be available,” the district’s plan says.

DERBY

Derby school district, like Wichita, will start the school year on Sept. 8.

Derby gave parents the option to send their children to in-person classes or remote instruction.

Parents who opted for in-school classes were required to sign an understanding that after nine weeks those students could transition to go to a hybrid format, meaning students come to class two or three times a week and the other three or two days learn online.

Derby plans to hold in-person classes “as long as Health Department and local regulations allow,” according to a video on its website explaining its re-opening plan.

The population in the Derby schools ZIP code 67037 is 28,364. As of Wednesday, 2,703 people had been tested for the coronavirus and 149 cases had been identified.

GODDARD

Goddard school district, just west of Wichita, says its priority is for students to attend classes in-person with teachers rotating to different classrooms starting Sept. 8.

“However, circumstances may arise that cause the district to transition from a full-time, on-site learning option to a hybrid learning model,” said Jeff Hersh, assistant superintendent of human resources and student services, in a video explaining the return plan. “In this scenario, students may spend part of their time on-site and part of their time learning virtually from home. On-site and hybrid options may vary and be modified during the school year depending on your child’s grade level, community health indicators and staffing ability.”

To adapt to potential changes in learning locations, Goddard will provide all students will a Chromebook laptop computer, Hersh said.

There’s also a remote learning model available to students. Students who opt for online classes must continue that way for the entire first semester.

The Goddard area has had 45 identified COVID-19 cases out of a population of about 9,300.

HAYSVILLE

Haysville schools, just south of Wichita, won’t start until Sept. 10 for grades 1-6 and 7-9 and Sept. 11 for grades 10-12. Kindergarten and Pre-K start Sept. 14.

Parents were given three choices for their children: on-site, hybrid and online.

On-site students will have temperature checks before coming to school and will wash their hands every hour.

“While our preference is to provide parents with choice for their students, certain circumstances may require all students to use the remote model for a period of time. For example, if the number of positive COVID-19 cases continues to rise the board of education or the county may choose another shut down in order to reduce the number of positive cases,” the district’s plan says.

Hybrid learning is available to high school students who want to take traditional courses online and elective courses on-site.

Any students who want to take courses online will have daily contact with teachers and other students remotely.

At least 127 people have had COVID-19 in the Haysville area out of a population of about 14,200.

MAIZE

Maize Board of Education will meet virtually at 7 p.m. Thursday, an hour after the start of the Wichita school board meeting, for a special meeting where additional details on its reopening plan could emerge.

The district already moved its opening date back from Aug. 11 to Sept. 8 and is considering in-person and online options.

In-person classes would be limited to four days a week for elementary school students (with remote learning on Wednesdays) for at least the first nine weeks.

During that time, middle school and high school students will attend classes two days a week and attend class remotely the other three. Students with last names A-K will attend face-to-face classes Mondays and Thursdays and last names L-Z will attend on Tuesdays and Fridays.

If COVID-19 conditions get worse, the district will consider going fully remote or extending hybrid learning past he first nine weeks.

Twenty-three COVID-19 cases have been identified in the Maize ZIP code out of a population of 4,900, although the district also includes students from bordering ZIP codes that have far more cases.

MULVANE

Mulvane students will have two days of “virtual orientation” Sept. 8-9 and begin in-person classes Sept. 10. There’s also an option for students to take the first semester fully online.

Like other districts around Wichita, Mulvane is preparing for all students to have to adopt a hybrid schedule of online and on-site classes or fully remote classes if the virus gets worse.

The Mulvane area has had 32 people test positive for COVID-19 out of a population just under 8,900.

RENWICK

Renwick school district, which includes schools in Andale, Colwich and Garden Plain west of Wichita, plans to start classes next Tuesday.

Its previously approved plan called for students in grades 5-12 to wear masks when social distancing was not possible.

But the school board has called a special meeting at 5 p.m. Thursday to discuss the district’s COVID-19 response.

The ZIP codes that include Renwick schools have had 64 cases since April.

VALLEY CENTER

During enrollment, Valley Center parents were asked to choose between two options: in-person or full remote learning.

But the district said it will defer to public health orders by local health officials, such as Dr. Garold Minns or the Sedgwick County Commission (acting as the Board of Health).

If capacity must be limited, the district plans to move to a staggered in-person schedule, called a hybrid model, where some students attend in-person on certain days and online the rest of the time.

In that case, Valley Center will use a sorting system to choose which days students will attend, according to the district’s FAQ page on the 2020-2021 school year.

“With the hybrid model, we use a computer program to randomly divide students into two groups with immediate family members being placed into the same group,” the plan says. “Once those groups are initially established, we will have a system for feedback available where families can request a change in groups. These groups will alternate in-person days with remote learning days. On the remote learning days, students will be contacted by at least one teacher and will be expected to complete a variety of learning tasks.”

The Valley Center area has had 51 coronavirus cases in a population of 10,500.

About 50 people, mostly made up of local educators, held a protest outside of Wichita’s North High before the local school board met inside on July 23, 2020 to determine the details of how school would begin in Wichita this fall. 
TRAVIS HEYING / THE WICHITA EAGLE

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