‘Open Our Schools’ group wants in-person learning in Shawnee Mission schools, but others support district’s decision to start remotely

The Shawnee Mission School District announced this week it will start the 2020-21 academic year on Sept. 8 with all students learning remotely, due to continuing community spread of COVID-19 in Johnson County.

Two groups are organizing people to show up to Monday’s Shawnee Mission School District Board of Education meeting and public listening session to express competing views over the district’s decision to start the coming academic year with all students learning remotely.

That decision followed county health officials’ assessment that the current COVID-19 positivity rate across the area would not allow for schools to safely hold class in person.

One Facebook group calling itself “Open Our Schools,” started by two mothers of Shawnee Mission students, is organizing what it calls an “in person … peaceful protest,” seeking to pressure the board to reopen schools for in-person learning and extracurricular activities amid the coronavirus pandemic.

“This group is for parents/kiddos/coaches/teachers in the SMSD who want our schools to reopen and our children to be able to participate in sports and school activities,” the group’s Facebook description reads. “This is an IN PERSON event at the BOE meeting on Monday! Please share — we want people from every Shawnee mission school there! We’d love to have entire teams of children show up IN UNIFORM with signs saying things like ‘LET US PLAY ‘ and ‘LET US LEARN’.”

The group also encourages those who show up to wear masks and be socially distanced.

One of the group’s organizers, Angela Gantzer, said she is concerned about the “negative impact that remote learning has on our children.” She said she was driven to start the group, in part, by the struggles her own son, who she says has special needs, has had during the pandemic.

“This has been especially hard on him,” Gantzer wrote to the Post in an email. “I have seen many of the gains he made last year disappear.”

Meanwhile, another Facebook group that supports the district’s decision to start the year remotely, started by a Shawnee Mission teacher and the wife of another teacher, is rallying for those who support the district’s decision to show up for Monday’s meetings.

“I feel like it’s really important to show our support and gratitude for the board and superintendent, you made a really tough decision,” Tammy Mathieson, a 6th grade teacher at Pawnee Elementary and one of the organizers of the group supporting the decision to start remotely. “I’m so glad they made that decision and made it early, based on science and based on the county’s health recommendations.”

Shawnee Mission was the first Johnson County public school district to announce its reopening plans this week, when Superintendent Mike Fulton announced Tuesday all of the district’s roughly 27,000 students would begin the fall semester on Sept. 8 learning remotely. All sports and activities would also be suspended starting Friday, Aug. 21. USD 232 in DeSoto quickly followed SMSD’s lead announcing all of their students would start remotely, too.

“It creates stability,” Mathieson said. “So that if the numbers keep going up, we won’t have to suddenly switch and send kids home.”

Community Listening Session planned

SMSD Superintendent Mike Fulton said last week that the district will continue to look at county health data to see if some students can come back, potentially by the end of September.

The Shawnee Mission school board has announced a community listening session at Shawnee Mission West High School from 3 to 4:30 p.m. Monday to “allow staff and patrons to express their thoughts concerning the district reopening plan.” That listening session will be followed by the board’s regularly scheduled meeting at the Center for Academic Achievement, which begins with a public comment period from 5:30 to 6 p.m.

In announcing the decision to start remotely, Superintendent Fulton cited the Johnson County Department of Health and Environment’s recommendation that, due to continuing community spread of COVID-19, in-person learning would not be safe. The county’s “gating criteria” for school reopening currently show two key metrics — percent positive tests and new cases — both increasing in Johnson County in recent days.

Fulton said the district would keep evaluating when some students might be able to return to in-person learning, possibly by the end of September, depending on county health trends.

“The intent is that, as county data improve, Shawnee Mission School District can transition to the hybrid model, where students attend school in-person twice a week,” he said in a statement.

Activities factor in to some parents’ views

But some parents — in Shawnee Mission and across Johnson County — are upset at the prospect of their kids learning remotely and missing out on sports and extracurricular activities this fall.

At a recent Johnson County Commission meeting, some parents and teenagers pleaded with commissioners to allow for high school sports in the county (though, as commissioners noted, the decision was up to local school boards.) And at Tuesday night’s Blue Valley school board meeting, dozens of parents showed up calling for elementary school students to be brought back for in-person learning, while some high school athletes asked they be allowed to play their sports.

The Blue Valley board ultimately voted to reject county health officials’ recommendations and conduct the district’s own review of COVID-19 data within its boundaries. The district on Friday announced it would begin the school year with secondary students learning remotely and elementary students in a hybrid learning model.

Still, the complications with schools reopening have quickly become evident. On Wednesday, a day after the tense Blue Valley board meeting, it was reported that the entire football team at Blue Valley West High School — some 100 students, staff members and coaches total — had been sent into a 14-day quarantine after three people associated with the program tested positive for COVID-19.

Shawnee Mission Schools also suspended summer workouts and team conditioning activities multiple times in recent weeks due to COVID-19 cases.

Other schools around the U.S., including a district in suburban Atlanta, have returned students to school for in-person learning in the last month, only to shut down buildings and switch to remote learning plans once positive COVID-19 cases were confirmed.

“We all want to back in person,” Mathieson, the Pawnee Elementary teacher, said. “But not until it’s safe to do so. We feel some of those who are pushing for full in-person school reopening don’t understand: it’s not going to be normal.”

But Gantzer, the parent helping organize the “Open Our Schools” group, said she wants the Shawnee Mission School District to at least consider allowing some elementary school students to return to in-person learning, like some other Johnson County districts are doing. She says that would be in line with JCDHE’s recommendations for reopening schools.

“We are very confused as to why Blue Valley and Olathe are able to start hybrid learning for elementary, while SMSD is not. We are also concerned about SMSD not following the gating criteria put out by the county that SMSD stated they would follow,” Gantzer said.

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention says studies conducted since the pandemic started suggest children are at “relatively low risk” to the effects of COVID-19, though they can contract and spread the disease. Because of that and also due to the potential negative emotional, social and psychological impacts on kids being out of school (not to mention the disproportionate hardships on low-income families that remote learning poses), the CDC has encouraged schools to reopen for in-person learning if community transmission is low.

But county health officials say that last condition — low community transmission — is currently not the case in Johnson County.

“No matter how the data is presented, the level of transmission of COVID-19 in the county is too high,” the county’s health director Sanmi Areola, Ph.D, along with the county’s public health officer Joseph LeMaster, MD, wrote in a joint statement earlier this week. “Our responsibility to lead efforts to promote and improve the health of every member of this county is one that we take seriously.”

They go on to say the need for children to be in school must be balanced against the health of all the county’s residents.

“We ask that all of us as a community continue to work hard collectively,” they write. “Please continue social distancing, avoid large crowds, stay away from house parties and wear masks.”

Editor’s note: This story has been updated with comments from Angela Gantzer and the Blue Valley school district’s reopening plan announcement.