Shawnee Mission Schools’ reopening plan comes into sharper focus, but plenty of questions remain

The Shawnee Mission district says it will base its reopening on the recommendations of Johnson County health officials. Students have been out of school since mid-March.

The Shawnee Mission Board of Education this week held a lengthy discussion about the current status of the district’s reopening plans for the fall semester, a week after families and teachers responded to surveys asking them about remote and in-person learning preferences.

At the same time, the district is keeping close tabs on key county health metrics (so-called “gating criteria”) amid the COVID-19 pandemic to gauge how fully schools may be able to reopen when classes begin Sept. 8.

“The key is flexibility. Nothing is going to be perfect,” Superintendent Mike Fulton said Monday.

With that in mind, here are answers to questions parents, students and staff may still have as the district prepares for an uncertain fall:

Will students get to go back to school?

That depends on county health trends.

Screen shot from Shawnee Mission School District presentation to Board of Education, Monday, Aug. 10

The two big factors the district is watching are the rate of positive tests and the trend line of new cases. The district graphic to the right shows how those two factors will be used to determine how fully schools reopen. To get to the green “zone,” with schools fully open and student sports and activities up and running, Johnson County will need to be at a positive test rate of 5% or less and have seen 14 days of declining cases.

Shawnee Mission’s Director of Health Services Shelby Rebeck, MSN, told the board Monday that current county health trends put the district in the “yellow” zone, necessitating a hybrid model with some students at school and some learning remotely, and limits on many sports and activities.

The prospects for getting to green by early September aren’t promising. District officials are preparing to start the year either with all students learning remotely or in some hybrid model. And there is the potential for schools to have to move back and forth between zones throughout the semester based on ongoing countywide health trends.

The Johnson County Department of Health and Environment expects to finalize guidelines for schools to reopen next week. In a written statement Tuesday, county health Director Dr. Sanmi Areola, Ph.D., said additional countywide restrictions may need to be put in place to enable schools to reopen in the “least restrictive way.”

For Johnson County’s latest “gating criteria” trend data, visit JCDHE’s online COVID-19 dashboard. 

Will students have to wear masks at school?

Yes.

As Rebeck noted Monday, anyone who comes to a Shawnee Mission school this fall — students, staff and visitors — will have to wear a face mask, per Kansas Gov. Laura Kelly’s executive order issued last month. There are exceptions, including for kids five and younger and students with certain medical conditions. Masks can also be taken off for eating.

Rebeck noted the district has purchased 200,000 face masks to “provide for anyone who needs them” and has received an additional round of PPE from JCDHE. The district has also purchased 5,000 face shields and plans to give at least two to every faculty member who will be teaching on-site.

What other precautions will schools be taking this fall?

The district will also ask parents to take their child’s temperature before sending them to school on days they will be learning in person. Rebeck said this is being done in accordance with guidance from the Kansas Department of Education, as well as the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

The district is considering providing thermometers to families who ask for them and also giving families guidelines on how to properly screen for COVID-19 symptoms.

If students are ill or showing symptoms, the district will require that students stay home for at least 10 days from the onset of their symptoms or after 24 hours passes without a fever, whichever happens first.

If students are exposed to a positive case, they will have to quarantine away from school for 14 days. If a positive case occurs in a classroom, the district says the school’s nurse will notify all affected students, who will be given instructions to quarantine.

“That makes me nervous,” Northwest Board Member Jaime Borgman said Monday. “The likelihood of kids having to quarantine is going to be pretty high, and two weeks without any direct teaching, that’s a long time.”

The district recently surveyed students and teachers on whether they preferred “remote” or “in person” learning. What became of that?

The district is using responses to those surveys to assign students and staff to either a “remote only” learning model for the fall or an “in person” model, which would include some time spent at school and some time learning remotely.

Student/family responses to SMSD survey. Screen shot of slide presentation. Credit SMSD.

Of the nearly 27,700 students/families that responded, the district said 71% chose the “in person” model.

Students who did not respond are automatically being enrolled in the “in person” option, the district said.

Dr. Michael Schumacher, Ed.D, the district’s interim Associate Superintendent for Human Resources, told the board Monday that students will have to stay in their assigned learning mode for the entire fall semester.

“We do not have the capacity to move kids in and out of modes right now,” Schumacher said. “Once they’re assigned [to either ‘remote only’ or ‘in person’] they’ll have to stay in that.”

Meanwhile, in their own survey, 74% of Shawnee Mission staff said that they would prefer to teach in an “in person” model, with just 8% saying they’d prefer remote-only teaching. But Schumacher acknowledged that some teachers expressed concern over picking “remote” because they feared losing their spots at their schools and may have selected an “Other” option as a result.

Schumacher said they’ll work to have students, even those learning remotely, remain in group cohorts made up of other students from their home schools and taught by teachers at their schools, but he said it may not be possible in all cases, especially for some high school courses.

What about fall sports and student activities?

They’ll definitely be impacted.

The district says “high risk” activities that involve a lot of close, physical contact, like football and wrestling, would still be allowed to have workouts and practices but would not be able to compete unless the county is in the green “zone.”

Already, this summer, the district has suspended workouts and conditioning for fall sports multiple times due to positive COVID-19 cases.

“Moderate-” and “low-risk” activities, like cross country, volleyball and soccer, could be played with mitigation measures in place, including potentially wearing masks during competition, or in the case of cross country, staggering when runners start races.

Choir, band and theater, which typically require students to be in close quarters while breathing and exhaling heavily, fall under the “high risk” category. Bill Thomas, the district’s Director of Performing Arts, said they’re exploring alternatives, like having groups practicing outdoors and livestreaming concerts.

“It’s difficult when you have something you love,” Superintendent Fulton said. “We’ll be advocating for these students, and if we can’t do activities this fall, we may look at coming up with alternatives.”

He said that could include potentially playing fall sports in the spring.