Shawnee Mission Schools tells parents a plan to bring elementary students back for in-person learning is in the works

Ali Vincent held up a sign Monday in support of the Shawnee Mission School District's decision to start the school year with all students learning remotely, saying she didn't feel comfortable sending her two elementary-aged students back to school as COVID-19 cases continue to tick up in Johnson County.

Shawnee Mission Schools Superintendent Mike Fulton told parents Friday that the district is working on plans to bring elementary students back for in-person learning and suggested that a scenario could be finalized as soon as next week.

The district is also set to host a “virtual town hall on health and safety”on Wednesday, Sept. 2, as it continues to prepare to reopen for classes amid the ongoing coronavirus pandemic.

The district is set to begin classes Tuesday, Sept. 8, with all of its roughly 27,000 students learning remotely. That plan does not appear set to change.

In an an email to parents Friday afternoon, Fulton wrote, “We are working on a plan to bring elementary students who chose in-person learning back to school, using the hybrid model. We will finish planning for that scenario and will provide you with more information next week.”

Fulton said a timeline for when a transition to in-person learning for elementary students might happen will also be unveiled next week, though he noted the district’s reopening plan calls for a “minimum 14-day transition period before making any change.”

The town hall Wednesday is set to start at 10 a.m. It will feature a panel that includes Fulton, the district’s director of health services Shelby Rebeck, Johnson County health director Sanmi Areola and Elizabeth Holzschuh, an epidemiologist with the county health department. They will plan to “take questions and provide guidance” about the district’s reopening plan and the county’s COVID-19 guidelines.

Links to the town hall will be posted at smsd.org and at the district’s Facebook and Twitter pages.

Teachers and schools getting ready

Shawnee Mission teachers and staff returned Tuesday for pre-service training, which Rebeck noted at this week’s board meeting, included going over the details of how to conduct in-person learning safely while minimizing the dangers of spreading COVID-19.

“Our teachers are getting into their buildings to discuss and determine how to implement safe opening principles,” Rebeck said. “Details for taking bathroom breaks, how to do recess while keeping kids separated, lining up in the hallway: all that needs to be worked through.”

Fulton reiterated that sentiment in his letter to parents Friday and urged community members to also help tamp down the spread of the coronavirus.

“We look forward to the start of the school year, and reconnecting with our students. What we do now to mitigate the spread of COVID-19 in our community will shape our plans moving forward,” Fulton wrote to parents. “When we bring our students back, we want to ensure that they and their teachers remain safe, and that we can continue to keep them in school without interruption.”

Shawnee Mission surveyed students earlier this summer and asked them to choose between two learning models: an all-remote plan, or an “in-person” plan which would have students spending some time at school and some time learning remotely. Slightly more than 70% of students who responded said they preferred the “in-person” plan.

Fulton’s letter said the plans in the works to bring students back for in-person learning in a hybrid model only apply to elementary students and only those students who chose the “in-person” learning model.

He also acknowledged that so-called “gating criteria” from the Johnson County Department of Health and Environment for reopening schools does allow for in-person learning for elementary students, even in the so-called “red zone.” But district officials, including Rebeck on Monday, have defended the district’s plan to have all students in remote learning for the start of the year.

“We decided that if we were going to err, it was going to be on the side of caution,” she said. “We have always said we were going to take it slow and do it right.”

Shawnee Mission is the only Johnson County public school district that plans to open with all students learning remotely.

Many parents and students have expressed frustration at the all-remote start. This past Monday, more than 30 people spoke at a public listening session hosted by the Board of Education at Shawnee Mission West High School. Most of the commenters pressed for in-person learning, saying remote learning — especially for elementary-aged children — was hard on working families and could have negative social and emotional impacts on children.

And later at Monday’s board meeting, a crowd that appeared to be in the hundreds rallied outside the district’s Center for Academic Achievement. Most of those in the crowd were parents or high school-aged students, who made the case that the district should also allow for sports and extracurricular activities.

Fulton said in his letter Friday that, along with the all-remote start, all student sports and activities remain suspended.