The USD 503 Board of Education on Friday evening made the decision to delay the start of school for students until Aug. 26, and for classes to begin remotely at that time, continuing in that fashion for at least two weeks.

Teachers will return Aug. 17 and participate in seven days of professional development to help prepare for a return to teaching within the buildings.

There are several reasons for the board’s decision, but first and foremost was that more time is needed to be able to safely prepare for students’ return.

Board member Jeff Quirin said it is irrational to think they can start on Aug. 17 in the buildings as planned and do it safely.

Parsons Middle School teacher Hope Smith said one teacher has three children with COVID-19 and there are others in quarantine. She said out of 30 teachers she spoke to, only one said they felt comfortable starting school Aug. 17. The other 29 felt there needed to be more time invested in developing plans. 

Three doctors spoke to the board on Friday. The school nurse and teachers representing other teachers all spoke to the board as well, voicing their beliefs school needs to reopen but in a manner that is as safe as possible. With the number of positive cases growing exponentially, all recommended delaying the start of school. Many teachers said they do not feel schools are prepared to open safely.

The physicians said there will be cases of COVID-19 in the buildings when students and staff return to school and plans need to be in place on how to handle that.

Dr. Jed Hetlinger said checking students’ temperatures is not going to stop the spread of COVID-19, given the number of people in the community claiming the virus is a hoax and refusing to wear masks. If a district sends a student home because they have a high temperature, there is no mandate they take a coronavirus test. A parent can dose their child with Tylenol and send them back to school after 72 hours, saying they are fever free, and the student could have COVID-19 and be spreading it.

Dr. Manish Dixit, a pediatrician, said temperature scans only pick up about 56% of the positive cases.

Concerns were also voiced about students actually wearing their masks at all times, such as when they are out of teachers’ sight, in bathrooms, etc.

“Why not be cautious and take your time?” Hetlinger said, requesting the district wait until cases in the county are at least on a downward trend and below a 5% positivity rate. “Why not error on the side of caution?”

Presently the county is experiencing a 7.2% positivity rate, and given the county fair this week and lack of social distancing and mask wearing among many, it is anticipated the rates are going to increase even more in about two weeks.

Ideally, Hetlinger said, it would be best if the school waits until there are no new cases for two weeks before letting students return to the buildings.

Dixit and pharmacist Brian West echoed many of the same sentiments as Hetlinger. 

They shared with the board about having to wade through all of the misinformation that was first being shared about the disease, what is now known about COVID-19 now and concerns about the still unknown. There are great concerns for infants under age 1 and children over the age of 10. Teens and young adults are being infected at a greater rate than the elderly presently, which puts many teachers in the vulnerable range. They also spoke about the students who would be most vulnerable, and that some of those students might not even be aware they are vulnerable, such as children with onset of Type I diabetes, for whom COVID-19 can mean serious illness or death. They also spoke about the long-term effects they are seeing, and they do not know how long those effects will last.

The virus has already mutated once and is now going through a second slow mutation, so they are not looking at vaccination as an answer but having in place solid plans that will protect teachers and students and ensuring policies are enforced.

The initial plan is for the remote learning to continue for the first two weeks. The board will then see if staff feel more comfortable with plans for students returning to school and visit with the Labette County Health Department and physicians to determine where the county’s COVID-19 numbers stand and if students can more safely return to buildings. The board said it will give parents at least a week’s notice before students return to the buildings, so they can prepare for the transition. A remote option is being made available for the entire year for parents concerned for their child’s health.

Superintendent Lori Ray said 556 parents responded to a survey sent out by the district. Of those, 46.8% of parents prefer their children return to the school buildings, 21.4% were uncertain and 23.6% desired remote learning.

Ray expressed concerns that failure by the district to reopen buildings to students could result in parents moving their students to another district that is opening its schools.

Some board members expressed that if other schools open to soon and then have to close their buildings because of students and staff being diagnosed with COVID-19, and ending up in isolation and quarantine, they are going to be having to learn remotely anyway.

The board wants to make sure parents and students understand that during the time remote learning is in place, there will be grading, participation is required and work must be completed.

Teachers will teach remotely from their classrooms each day unless they are isolated or quarantined and accommodations will be made for them to teach from home. 

Plans are for activities sponsored by the Kansas State High School Activities Association to begin on Aug. 17 as planned, though KSHSAA will revisit its plans after surveying superintendents around the state. The district will revisit the topic after that information is received. Ray said she feels that parents should have the right to decide if their children will participate in those activities, and health and safety protocols are being put in place.

In other business, the board rescheduled its meeting to approve the 2020-21 budget for publication for 4 p.m. Aug. 4.

The board also approved employment for Gary Baldwin as district van driver and Joe Renfro as substitute district van driver and approved the resignation of Celest Gatewood as district van driver.

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