JoCo health department releases school ‘gating criteria’ with different standards for elementary, secondary buildings

Elementary school students would be permitted to meet in person during the "yellow" and "red" phases. Secondary students would move to different learning models at that point. File photo credit Celia Llopis-Jepsen/ Kansas News Service.

The Johnson County Department of Health and Environment on Tuesday evening released its gating criteria recommendations, a key factor that will be used by K-12 schools to determine when and how in-person instruction may be delivered this fall.

The release comes as Shawnee Mission families are being asked to decide which learning model to choose for their students for the fall semester — either fully remote, or in-person with the possibility of periods of remote or hybrid learning based on COVID-19 prevalence.

Though subject to change as the local or statewide situation evolves, recommendations include individualized guidance for extracurricular and co-curricular activities and limits to nonessential classroom visits.

Guidance for age groups is different at some stages. Elementary schools would be permitted to hold classes in person even when positive COVID-19 tests were at 10-15% — the “red” stage in the county’s model. Middle and high schools would move to fully remote learning at that point. Health officials say this is because recent evidence suggests that younger children are less likely to spread the virus, but teenagers can spread it at the same rate as adults can.

“It is important that we all protect the health and well-being of our students, teachers, school staff and families by carefully considering all risks and benefits of reopening schools,” said JCDHE director Sanmi Areola, PhD, in a release. “These guidelines are a starting point for school administrators and parents/caregivers to make decisions on what is best for their school community and individual family.”

Johnson County has seen 8.8% of COVID-19 tests come back positive the past 14 days, according to the health department’s coronavirus update for Tuesday. That means schools would be in the “yellow” phase if the semester were underway — with elementary schools meeting in person, middle and high schools using a hybrid model, and many school activities prohibited.

David Smith, communications director for the Shawnee Mission School District, said the district appreciated the work of JCDHE to come up with “reasonable, science-based criteria for schools to use when deciding how to structure their learning.”

“We believe this guidance gives us the best opportunity to keep our students, staff, and the entire community safe. As our elementary schools are configured differently than other districts in the county, we will need to continue to examine how to interpret the rules for our youngest children,” Smith said.

You can find the gating criteria matrix released by JCDHE below:

Health officials stress need for remote-only plans

No matter what the situation is when school starts, the health department encourages all districts to plan a remote-only contingency plan in case such a plan becomes necessary. All positivity rates and case number monitoring will be based on a two-week period.

Provided that new case rates decrease or stay steady and percent of positivity is equal to or less than 5%, all grade levels should be able to resume in-person instruction safely with some limitations. This is considered a “green” phase. At this point, in-person co-curricular and extracurricular activities will be permitted with social distancing in place.

If the percent of positivity increases to no more than 10%, middle school and high school students will be expected to shift to a hybrid learning model. Elementary school students will be allowed to continue in-person classes, but the maintenance of stable groups will be reinforced. Some co-curricular and extracurricular activities will be able to continue in higher grade levels, but with some “modifications.”

In the case that the percent of positivity increases to 15%, in-person classes can continue for elementary school students, but all of their co-curricular and extracurricular activities will be relegated to remote-only status. Middle school and high schoolers at this point would be required to cease all in-person education and revert to remote classes.

If the percent of positivity surpasses 15%, all K-12 activities and education will be limited to a distance-only status. This status could also be instituted if new cases begin to increase over a 14-day period.

In all situations, JCDHE recommends alternative options for individuals who are considered high risk or have pre-existing illnesses.

“We absolutely want our children to be in school. They need to learn, they need the social interactions, but we also need to do that in a way that is safe for them, safe for the workers and teachers and safe for their parents and grandparents,” Areola said in a county health update. “So it’s important that we have control over community transmission.”

GENERAL REOPENING GUIDANCE AND PRINCIPLES

JCDHE also advises that every school district should include some other policies in their plan. Those recommendations include:

  • Promoting good hygiene practices like regular hand washing and sneezing into the elbow
  • Ramping up regular cleaning procedures so that high-touch spots are cleaned frequently
  • Establishing groups of students or cohorts that remain consistent to limit extra exposures
  • Reinforcing the importance of social distancing when it is possible (six feet is recommended, at least three feet is required)
  • Requiring face masks at all times
  • Prohibiting the use of shared supplies
  • Pre-deciding protocols for each building when it comes to disease management if cases occur or symptoms are reported

Local health and government leaders are expected to meet again in mid-August to determine if the current recommendations will be sufficient based on the situation at the time.

In the lead up to the first day of school, parents are encouraged to reinforce behaviors that are known to slow the spread of COVID-19, including mask-wearing and good hand hygiene.