School board adopts new guidelines for determining in-person learning, allow all winter sports to proceed


Caitlin Mooney

Link Crew members work in the new Maker Space room as students returned to the building in October. The Link Leaders acted as guides to the building when hybrid learning began.

By Tony Racy, Co-Online Editor in Chief

Wrestling will proceed for now and elementary schools will likely be able to remain open even if COVID-19 cases continue to climb under decisions made by the USD 497 school board last night.

The school board voted 5-1 to adopt the Kansas State Department of Education’s school gating criteria as the district’s new guidelines for determining in-person learning and activities. Those guidelines may be updated next week by the Kansas State Board of Education to allow for continued in-person learning for elementary students and a limited number of older students even if COVID-19 cases surge to a red level, at which point the greatest limitations typically are to kick in.

The motion grants Superintendent Anthony Lewis sweeping powers to allow special circumstances for some students to learn in the building no matter the reopening phase and to shut down in-person learning whenever deemed appropriate. He will also be able to use different strategies of enforcement for safety guidelines on learning and activities.

Lewis gave reassurance that he would use his powers to strictly enforce safety guidelines, such as mandatory mask-wearing after at least two board members raised concerns about mask usage during wrestling meets this week

“Our expectation is that any visiting team will adhere to Douglas County’s mask mandate,” Lewis said. “I would encourage any member of the community, whether you are a fan watching it — I can’t be everywhere — so if you notice these things, please let me know so, and I will share that. If we address it and there’s no adherence to it, I will shut it down.”

Five separate metrics will be considered to determine reopening stages. The different metrics include student absenteeism, two-week county percent positive case rate, two-week county cumulative incidence rate, trend in county incidence rate and local hospital capacity. Lewis would be empowered to make opening decisions based on those metrics.

“It would not require him to come back to the board each time he wants to make a move because he would have the flexibility to apply that criteria because he’s just using state and county data and district data to determine where each of those metrics fall within the green, yellow, orange, red categories,” executive director of human resources David Cunningham said. “It’s geared around all five of those metrics, and he would then move the district in the direction that the criteria dictates.”

School board members discussed the usefulness of keeping student absenteeism as a metric. At the high school level, for example, most students are online each day anyway and are counted present if they log in for classes online even if they are home sick. Lewis was given the power to review the use of absenteeism data and determine the role it will play in his decisions.

“It does seem like a valid point about absenteeism because of PowerSchool issues or the way we’re collecting absent rates today is not easy for this district to do,” school board president Kelly Jones said. “People are making all kinds of decisions when they’re keeping kids home, and we’re trying to encourage people to be careful when kids come and don’t come.”

After consideration, the board discussed if it would be better to weigh each gating criteria metric differently to determine which phase to be in. Lewis is to consult with the Lawrence-Douglas County Health Department and report back to the board at its Dec. 14 meeting.

The gating criteria will also vary between pre-k and elementary schools, and middle school and high schools. Pre-K and elementary students schools will remain with on-site and hybrid learning in yellow, orange and red phases of reopening. Middle and high school students will remain in hybrid learning in the yellow phase but move to remote-only in the orange and red phases with exceptions for some students.

The Kansas State Board of Education is to review and discuss the guidelines in a meeting on Dec. 8 and 9. The USD 497 school board plans to react to any changes made.

For now, the district will continue to offer high-risk activities, including basketball, wrestling, cheer, band and choir, but with current mitigation strategies. The Kansas State High School Activities Association last week banned spectators until later in January but rejected other recommendations that would have delayed the start of competitions.

USD 497’s board voted 4-2 on Monday to adopt Lawrence-Douglas County Public Health’s Smart and Safe School Reopening Guidance for the purpose of determining limitations on athletics and other activities. Athletes, for example, will wear masks but that mandate only applies when students are competing in Douglas County. The KSHSAA is not requiring mask use during competitions.