USD 232 school board in De Soto switches to hybrid learning plan for start of school

Parents and students across Johnson County, including in USD 232, have shown up at board meetings in recent weeks, pressing district leaders to reopen schools more fully even as COVID-19 case counts remain high. (File photo.)

Late Monday, the USD 232 Board of Education in De Soto voted to reverse an earlier decision to start the school year with all students in remote learning. The new plan calls for all students to start in a hybrid model instead.

The Blue Valley School District is also starting the 2020-2021 school year in a hybrid model. These plans differ from the Shawnee Mission School District, which plans to start its school year with all 27,000 students learning remotely.

Board overturns Aug. 3 decision

After five and a half hours of hearing from pediatricians and health professionals, listening to concerns from parents and teachers, and discussing among themselves, the school board voted 4-3 to adopt the Kansas Schools Gating Criteria. The board’s vote overturns its Aug. 3 decision, which supported following Johnson County’s gating criteria.

Board members Rachele Zade, Bill Fletcher and John Gaignat voted no.

The school board stood by its earlier decision to exempt sports and activities from the gating criteria. The school district will instead opt to follow guidelines from the Kansas State High School Activities Association.

The school board also voted 6-1 to start all classes for 6-12 grades in hybrid mode. Board Member Stephanie Makalous voted no. Classrooms for pre-kindergarten through grade 5 will also start in an on-site/hybrid mode.

Board President Danielle Heikes and her fellow board members stressed the need to strike a balance between the physical health and social-emotional well-being of students who have been isolated for months during the COVID-19 pandemic.

Board President Danielle Heikes called for the creation of a COVID-19 advisory board that would assist in decision-making for learning environments and gating criteria this fall.

The school board also directed staff to create a COVID-19 advisory board comprised of district stakeholders. The advisory board will assist the school board in decision-making related to the gating criteria and the evolving situation caused by the pandemic.

“The unfortunate part is we’re trying to prioritize; we’re trying to figure out, is there a prioritization level between physical health and emotional health?” Heikes said. “I don’t think we can do that and win. Nobody’s winning here, that’s for sure. We’re in a war, so to speak, with this virus. 

“We might benefit from a health perspective by locking down, but basically, we’re not. So how do we strike a balance to ensure that we are meeting the needs of our students, our teachers, our staff, our families and our community?”

Based on a combination of factors such as the rolling average of positive cases over a two-week period, the number of new cases in a two-week period, and local hospitalization capacity rates, the USD 232 school district could have determined it should open in either the yellow or orange category of the Kansas Schools Gating Criteria. Here is a graphic of the gating criteria.

Superintendent supports remote learning for grades 6-12, Board disagrees

Superintendent Frank Harwood said he considers USD 232 to currently fall in the orange category, which is more restrictive and calls for starting 6-12 classrooms in the remote learning environment. The school board however, voted to be less restrictive for the start of school, citing the need to get students back in the classroom as quickly and safely as possible.

Superintendent Frank Harwood recommended USD 232 start grades 6-12 in a remote learning environment, citing the Kansas Schools Gating Criteria and the rolling average of positive cases in the area.

Harwood said USD 232 schools have adequate supplies for sanitization, etc., to start classes Sept. 8 in hybrid mode.

The school board brought in pediatricians who spoke via Zoom about the health risks of returning to school in person. Members of the De Soto Teachers Association acknowledged the difficult decision and urged the school board to follow advice of health professionals and Johnson County’s gating criteria.

“We understand the pain, anxiety, and frustration that the increased spread of COVID-19 during the past two months has caused our community,” said Emily Valdez, president of the association. “We understand that families and teachers are experiencing the effects of the pandemic to varying degrees. However, the only responsible decisions we can support are those that make the safety of students and staff the primary focus and ground those decisions in reliable data and the best recommendations of health care professionals.”

Many parents, including a few with health backgrounds, countered that they believe the current data is unreliable and a moving target because there are too many unknowns about the virus and its impact on younger people.

Social-emotional wellness dominates discussions

Several parents and students held signs stressing that in-person learning is essential. A few people were not wearing masks, despite the state mask order.

Social-emotional wellness dominated discussions. More than a dozen parents and students, as well as a teacher, spoke in support of in-person learning, citing the significant mental health benefits of in-person learning and socialization. Many acknowledged the risks of spreading COVID-19 in the school buildings but said they believed the risk is minimal or insignificant.

Several parents and students cited concerns with children suffering from poor mental health such as anxiety, depression and suicidal ideation, and trauma from months of isolation. Others brought up concerns that children were stuck in abusive homes, could have food insecurity and may have no reliable internet access to participate in remote learning.

The board members said the feedback they’ve heard from parents and families came out about 50% in support of starting school in person, and 50% in support of starting school remotely.

‘Some of my classmates won’t get to eat’

Several parents and students, including rising fifth-grader Mallory Fitzgerald, cited the benefits of in-person learning as a way to ensure all students have the same resources for education.

Mallory Fitzgerald, an incoming fifth-grader at Prairie Ridge Elementary, shared the benefits of in-person learning and other benefits of the classroom, such as exposure to new things that inspire them, such as coding, music, art, sports, public speaking and leadership skills. She also wants to ensure all students have access to the same resources.

“Learning online is so much harder; there’s a lot less structure and focus,” Fitzgerald said. “While I don’t want to do this, I know that I will be OK because I have a support structure at home. But I also know that going 100% online means that some of my classmates don’t have the same resources that I do.

Members of the De Soto Teachers Association urged the school board to follow advice of health professionals and Johnson County’s gating criteria.

“It means that some of my classmates won’t get to eat. It means that some of my classmates will still be in a scary situation at home. It means that many of my classmates will be home alone struggling to figure out their lessons while their parents have to go to work.”

Most of the parents and students acknowledged it’s a difficult decision to make, but social-emotional benefits must be factored into the decision. Board members, including Rachele Zade, echoed those sentiments.

“Decisions cannot just be made by numbers alone,” Zade said.

As the night wore on, many parents urged the school board outside of the public comment period to make a decision to return students to the classroom. More people continued to take off their masks to speak to each other, despite the district’s requirement that everyone follow the statewide mask order.

Local pediatricians, including Dr. Lisa Gilmer, stressed the need for schools to follow universal mitigation measures such as wearing a mask, washing hands and social distancing, to keep the virus at bay.

At least five people at the meeting were not wearing masks, including one parent who spoke toward the end of the night about her underlying health condition of allergies and asthma, her recovery from COVID-19 and the mental health impacts on students stuck at home.