USD 232 elementary students to return to full-time in-person learning Oct. 8

Elementary students in the USD 232 school district in De Soto are returning to full on-site learning on Thursday, Oct. 8. The school board accepted the recommendation from the school district's COVID Advisory Committee to remain in the yellow zone of the Kansas Schools Gating Criteria. Superintendent Frank Harwood, pictured above, said mental health was heavily discussed at the committee meeting last week.

Elementary students in the USD 232 school district in De Soto are returning to full on-site learning on Thursday, Oct. 8.

After about two hours of deliberations, the USD 232 Board of Education in De Soto on Monday voted 5-2 to accept the district’s COVID Advisory Committee’s recommendation to remain in the yellow zone of the Kansas Schools Gating Criteria. The school board further recommended that students in grades pre-K through 5 transition to on-site learning next week.

Board President Danielle Heikes and board member Stephanie Makalous voted in dissent.

Meanwhile, the neighboring Shawnee Mission School District also returns elementary students to in-person learning Oct. 5. Blue Valley schools return elementary students to in-person the same day as Shawnee Mission, while secondary students will begin hybrid learning.

All USD 232 students are currently in the hybrid learning environment, with the exception of students who opted into the district’s full-remote learning program for the semester.

The board’s decision comes as USD 232 schools enter the third full week of school. Classes started Sept. 8.

Background: The school board last month directed Superintendent Frank Harwood to create a COVID Advisory Committee. The committee’s general purpose is to offer the district guidance on interpreting COVID-19 trends and determining whether USD 232 schools should be in in-person, remote or hybrid learning environments.

Board member Ashley Spaulding said some teachers reported they’re “at a breaking point” with the hybrid learning model. Other board members said they’ve heard the hybrid is working well.

The committee met last week for the first time and recommended the school district remain in the yellow zone. After much discussion, the committee also recommended giving equal weight to each metric of the Kansas Schools Gating Criteria via a point system. The metrics include things like absenteeism, the two-week positive case rate in Johnson County and local hospital capacity. The green category is 1 point, yellow is 2 points, orange is 3 and red is 4.

Harwood said one of the most heavily discussed topics included the students, teachers and families’ social-emotional needs and mental health and well-being.

What board members said: Collectively, the school board sounded concerned with secondary students returning full-time in the classroom and cited health experts’ advice that shows that secondary students are at a greater risk for contracting COVID-19, having more severe symptoms and spreading it.

Some points that board members and district staff made:

  • Many parents and teachers report that the hybrid learning mode is working for them, while just as many report that it’s not.
  • Several board members opposed making too many abrupt changes to the learning environments without giving students and teachers time to adjust.
  • “While I absolutely agree that people are calling for consistency and wanting that consistency among teachers and staff and families, I have also heard from so many teachers that are about at their breaking point with hybrid, especially at the elementary level. I have actually heard from some teachers who have said that the stress that this is causing them is more of a risk to them than COVID. That concerns me for their mental health and physical well-being.” –Ashley Spaulding, board member
  • “Our kiddos need their teachers and they need that face-to-face time. This is not an ideal situation for anyone, but I would like to just caution us that we’re not going to make everybody happy. When we go back in person… this year, we will see exposure, quarantines, classroom shutdowns, potentially building shutdowns, and we will hear angry, frustrated parents that are trying to find alternatives for their children who are now stuck at home, quarantined for two weeks, we are going to hear from those frustrated families who say why did you change hybrid?” –Danielle Heikes, board president
Tina Darling, a teacher at Starside Elementary, asked the school board to consider the district’s low COVID-19 case count due to the effectiveness of keeping students in remote or hybrid learning.

What parents and a teacher said: Parents and teachers gave mixed reactions on the hybrid learning model. Board members said many teachers and parents reported that the hybrid learning mode is working for them. Yet during a public comment period, some sounded exasperated by the start-stop pace of having kids in school only two days a week. One teacher showed support for the hybrid model.

  • “I’m here to tell you this is not working. It doesn’t work to be teacher, mom and employee at the same time. There’s an increase in just hating learning because it’s so hard at home. There’s the frustration, there’s the tears. It’s harming parent-child relationships because of the stress at home.”  –Tracy Buckendorf, parent
  • “There’s all kinds of data to make whatever decision you want to. If you’re going to put our students first, they’ve got to be in the classroom. This is your decision and your time to lead. I hope you push to get every one of our students back in the seat as soon as possible because they’re simply falling behind if they’re not in school.” –Jarrod McGinnis, parent
  • “I know it’s not about the staff, but if you don’t have staff to teach the kids, they’re going to be remote anyway. Just consider that maybe we are doing the right thing and that’s why we have less cases.” –Tina Darling, teacher

What’s next: The committee will meet on an as-needed basis, possibly in two or three weeks to review the metrics and see whether COVID-19 mitigation efforts such as masks and physical distancing are working. The committee may at that time consider any possible changes to the school district’s learning environment.

Meanwhile, the school board will have its regular meeting Monday, Oct. 5.