Shawnee Mission board approves restarting high school sports, district unveils plan to bring elementary students back for in-person learning

Students and parents outside a SMSD Board of Education meeting in September, urging the district to reopen schools more fully. Photo credit Leah Wankum.

The Shawnee Mission Board of Education on Wednesday approved a measure allowing high school sports and activities to begin practicing again immediately, weeks after all activities were suspended amid fears of ongoing community spread of COVID-19 in Johnson County.

The board voted 5-2 to approve the proposal during a special public meeting at the district’s Center for Academic Achievement Wednesday afternoon, a day after Shawnee Mission’s roughly 27,000 students returned to classes remotely.

“This is now yours to lose,” SM Northwest area representative Jaime Borgman said, addressing a handful of students allowed to sit in the socially distanced seating area of the meeting room. “We have to do everything we can not to lose it. It’s on you. I believe in you, and I know how bad you want this.”

Board President Heather Ousley and SM South area representative  Jessica Hembree voted against the motion.

“I will say, I have some concern that people will actually socially distance,” Ousley said during discussion of the motion, alluding to a 36-page plan of mitigation practices the district has used to try to tamp down the spread of COVID-19 during athletic practices and competitions. “If you fail to follow this mitigation, does that mean you are not allowed to participate? I’m not sure people will follow risk mitigation.”

During the meeting, a large crowd made up mostly of students gathered outside the boardroom, their chants of “Let them play,” and “Our choice, our schools,” occasionally interrupting the board’s discussion.

According to Superintendent Mike Fulton, the motion means high school athletics can begin participating as soon as Thursday.

Administration’s plan to bring pre-K-6 students back to classroom

Superintendent Mike Fulton. (File photo).

Also at Wednesday’s meeting, Superintendent Mike Fulton unveiled the district’s plan to bring back elementary students for in-person learning.

The plan calls for all pre-K-6 students to be in remote learning until Oct. 2. After that, the district would start bringing back some elementary students for hybrid learning for the first two weeks of October, with the aim of transitioning all elementary students to in-person learning by Oct. 19.

However, the district is also requesting that parents of elementary students take another survey to pick their preference between having their child learn remote only or in a hybrid/in-person model. According to an email sent to parents Wednesday afternoon, the choice they make now will last for the entire 2020-21 academic year.

Some parents expressed relief at the news that in-person learning appears to be around the corner.

Joe and Skylar Bellinger are parents to an incoming kindergartner and 3rd grader in the district

“We thank the Shawnee Mission School District for following the guidance of the community health experts at the Johnson County Department of Health and Environment and allowing elementary students to attend in-person learning,” Joe said in an email. “We are relieved that the educational needs of our youngest learners will be met in an appropriate, safe, and healthy environment.”

Elementary parents will have until Sunday, Sept. 13 to respond to the survey.

The move to transition elementary students back to in-person learning does not affect secondary students, who all will remain learning remotely for the time being.

Before her vote against the motion to restart high school sports, Hembree noted her own sense of dissonance over the two changes.

“I wish we were applying this sense of urgency and rigor and creative thinking to getting our elementary students back in schools,” she said.

Referring to the more drawn-out plan to gradually bring elementary students back to the classroom, she continued: “That feels so slow, laborious and methodical compared to flipping a switch for sports and making it happen.”

The district’s director of athletics and activities Richard Kramer assured the board that safety protocols were in place. He also noted that there had been no positive cases of COVID-19 linked to any athletic practice or workout this summer. Positive cases that had prompted the suspension of practices on multiple occasions, he said, came from “outside.”

“If we follow [our mitigation plans], we should have every opportunity to stay safe,” he said before the vote. “We’ve looked at every detail, been in the weeds on this. We are looking out for the safety of every student, coach and family.”

County health department gives “ok”

Superintendent Fulton said county health officials had signed off on the district reinstating sports. He presented a quote from Sanmi Areola, Ph.D, the director of the Johnson County Department of Health and Environment, during Wednesday’s meeting.

“I am ok with SMSD proceeding with sports and extracurricular activities. There are currently several teams playing in the community and businesses are open,” Fulton quoted Areola saying. “No matter the sports that [are] played — high risk, medium or low risks — please ensure the appropriate safety precautions to minimize risks.”

Areola suggested teams be grouped into cohorts to minimize outside contacts, that spectators be limited to immediate family members and that “preventive random sampling” be conducted to track if cases are growing among teams and athletes.

During a virtual town hall last week, Areola announced the county was buying thousands of saliva-based COVID-19 tests to be used “exclusively” to test students, teachers and staff in schools. On Wednesday, however, Fulton said he had yet to hear more details about when those tests would be given to schools.

Hembree said Areola’s “ok” was the “least-ringing endorsement of going back to sports I can think of.”

Fulton also suggested JCDHE’s “gating criteria” to determine how fully schools should reopen — a particular sticking point in SMSD’s ongoing discussions about reopening — would soon be changing. The “gating criteria” now recommend against high school sports and extracurricular activities if the county is in the “red zone” in terms of new cases and positive percent test rates.

As of Wednesday night, the county’s COVID-19 dashboard showed those two metrics put the county in the “red zone,” seemingly advising against playing sports.

A JCDHE spokesperson said the current gating criteria “will be reviewed and discussed with the [school] superintendents at a meeting later this month.”

Shawnee Mission remains the only public school district in Johnson County that is starting the year with all its students learning remotely. Before Wednesday, it was also the only district that had suspended all its high school sports and activities.