Shawnee Mission Schools will start fall semester with all students learning remotely, following county health recommendations

All roughly 27,000 Shawnee Mission Schools students will begin the 2020-21 academic learning remotely.

The Shawnee Mission School District will begin the 2020-21 academic year with all students learning remotely, following the recommendation from Johnson County health officials who say that continuing community spread of COVID-19 makes in-person learning unsafe.

All extracurricular activities and sports in the district will also be suspended, starting Friday, Aug. 21.

“Please know this is not the outcome that any of us hoped for, when we began planning for the opening of schools this past spring. We miss our students, and can’t wait to be back to gather with them,” Superintendent Mike Fulton wrote in an email to families and staff.

The district’s announcement came Tuesday afternoon, shortly after leaders of all six public school districts in Johnson County met with county health officials, who offered their latest guidance for school reopening.

Shawnee Mission students are set to start the semester on Sept. 8.

Meanwhile, USD 232 — which covers DeSoto and parts of western Lenexa, Olathe and Shawnee — also announced Tuesday it would start the semester with all students in remote learning.

SMSD Superintendent Mike Fulton said the district will continue to look at county health data to see if some students can come back, potentially by the end of September. Photo credit Juliana Garcia/Shawnee Mission Post.

A statement from the Johnson County Department of Health and Environment said the two main “gating criteria” used to determine school reopening guidance had increased in Johnson County over the past week. The average case count in Johnson County has crept up to 106 cases per day over the last week, an increase from roughly 90 cases per day over the previous two weeks.

“These are very high numbers,” JCDHE’s statement said.

In addition, the percent of positive new tests has also gone up in recent days. On Tuesday, the rolling average for the previous 14 days stood at 11.4%, well above the 5% threshold recommended for schools to be able to conduct in-person learning.

“Unfortunately, we have not met the threshold in the school gating criteria for a safe return to in-person learning, even for a hybrid model,” county health director Dr. Sanmi Areola, Ph.D, said in a statement.

In a press conference at Shawnee Mission Schools’ Center for Academic Achievement, Fulton said the district would be monitoring county health data frequently in coming weeks with the hope of bringing some students back to school, possibly as early as late September.

But that, he said, would be dependent on continuing health trends in Johnson County.

“We want to aim to get 100% of our students back in class. But there are some steps to get there,” he said.

In recent weeks, district leaders had lengthy public discussions about their potential reopening plans and had surveyed students and staff on whether they’d prefer “remote only” learning and teaching or an “in-person” hybrid model that would split time between at-school classes and learning from home.

Of the nearly 27,700 students/families that responded to the district’s survey, 71% chose the “in person” model, and 74% of Shawnee Mission staff also said that they would prefer to teach in an “in person” model.

What to do about sports and activities has also been a flashpoint in the ongoing discussion over reopening schools countywide.

A group of parents and teachers last week pleaded with the Johnson County Commission to consider allowing high school sports this fall, though commissioners acknowledged the decision was up to local districts. And Shawnee Mission schools suspended summer workouts and practices for fall sports multiple times in recent weeks because of COVID-19 cases.

On Thursday, Fulton acknowledged the pain of having to stop fall sports and extracurricular activities like marching band, theater and choir.

“We recognize that having students involved in those activities is important, but we want to be safe,” he said.

In his letter to families, he said the district is working with the Kansas High School Activities Association to potentially hold fall sports seasons in the spring.