Positive cases of COVID-19 in Shawnee Mission Schools are not a matter of “if”, says Shelby Rebeck, MSN, the district’s director of health services. They’ll be a matter of “when.”
“We know we’re going to have cases in school,” Rebeck said last week on the Pediatric Ethics podcast, hosted by Dr. John Lantos, the Director of Pediatric Bioethics at Children’s Mercy Hospital in Kansas City, Mo.
“You can’t bring hundreds of people back in our schools without having cases,” she said.
Still, Rebeck says the district’s reopening plan is aimed at helping minimize the spread of the disease. SMSD was the only public school district in Johnson County to begin the school year with all of its students learning remotely.
“We took our time, and we’re taking it slow, hoping that will give us lower cases,” Rebeck said.
The CDC has said with “appropriate mitigation measures” in place, in-person learning “is in the best interests of students,” because children generally appear to have a lower risk of infection for COVID-19, and they also may suffer negative emotional and cognitive impacts from being away from school for extended periods of time.
Still, current COVID-19 data in Johnson County suggest community spread of the disease is still happening. As of Monday, the county health department’s COVID-19 dashboard showed new cases are increasing and the percent positive test rate has risen to 12.7%.
SMSD is set to begin bringing back some elementary students in kindergarten through 2nd grade for in-person learning on Monday, Oct. 5. Students in grades 3 through 6 who have chosen the district’s “in-person” learning model will follow the week after.
Rebeck and other district leaders are set to brief the SMSD Board of Education Tuesday night on the latest updates to the district’s reopening plan, but based on what she has said at previous board meetings and what she told the Pediatric Ethics podcast, we have a clearer idea what school could look like in SMSD during a pandemic.
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Masks, social distance and hand sanitizer
Anyone who enters a SMSD school building this year will be required to wear a mask, with some exceptions, and the district says masks will be provided to any student or staff member who doesn’t have one.
Rebeck said teachers of elementary students — who will be the first students to return to school — have been trying to teach their classes remotely during September about proper mask-wearing, the need for social distancing and the importance of frequent hand-washing.
Teachers and administrators have been working out classroom procedures for making sure students stay apart as much as possible. The district says hand sanitizer dispensers are being installed in all classrooms, and individual hand sanitizers will also be given to students and staff.
Cohorts and tape on the floor
Students who return to school will learn in “small, static” groups — what you may hear referred to as cohorts — to minimize exposure. Students will not rotate to other rooms for classes like art and music, but those teachers will move from class to class instead, again to minimize potential spread.
Hallways and common areas like gyms and cafeterias will be marked with tape to help students maintain at least three feet of social distance (the minimum recommended by county health officials). Desks in classroom will be spaced out, and other furniture will be moved and put in storage to make enough room.
COVID-19 checklists at home
SMSD is not requiring mass temperature checks for students returning to school, on the advice of the Johnson County Department of Health and Environment.
Instead, the district says families sending their children to school will be asked to do “daily COVID-19 self-monitoring” at home. On the Pediatric Ethics podcast, Rebeck said this would be a 14-point checklist of questions for families to answer each day before sending their children to school (questions like, ‘Have you or anyone in your family come in recent contact with someone who has tested positive?’) She said if families answer ‘yes’ to any of the questions on the checklist, then they should contact their school’s nurse.
Rebeck also confirmed that SMSD has purchased digital thermometers for each family to check their children’s temperature at home before they come to school.
Positive cases and potential quarantines
Other Johnson County public school districts —including Blue Valley and USD 232 in De Soto — that have already returned some students to class this fall have reported positive cases of COVID-19, and Blue Valley asked 100 individuals at one elementary school to quarantine after several positive cases there.
Rebeck told Pediatric Ethics that if a positive case is linked to a classroom in SMSD, all families of students in that classroom, along with teachers and staff members, would be notified, though the individual who tested positive would not be identified for privacy reasons.
Still, quarantines are not inevitable, Rebeck said. According to advice from Johnson County health officials, Rebeck says if everyone in a classroom or school setting where a positive case occurred was wearing masks, then no quarantine will be required. If masks had been taken off or were not being properly worn, then students, their families and staff could be asked to quarantine for at least 14 days.
“Fourteen days is a long time to be at home away from school. So, we’re really hoping these young learners will be masking properly, so that they won’t have to quarantine,” she said.
Rebeck admitted that the district is “struggling” with how to conduct lunch in elementary schools. Lunch will be conducted in school cafeterias, not in classrooms. That’s because the district’s contractual agreement with teachers allows for teachers to have a 30-minute, “duty free” lunch each day. Keeping students in classrooms where teachers would likely have to supervise them while eating lunch would violate that.
But Rebeck said keeping students properly spaced out in cafeterias could become an issue. She said elementary school principals have been working out plans to have students eat in other areas of their buildings, possibly spacing them out in hallways, other large multi-purpose rooms and even outside if weather allows.
Rebeck said keeping distance during lunch becomes more paramount because students will have to take off their masks in order to eat.