Health officials say 60% of JoCo public schools have had to use quarantines to try to stop COVID-19

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.)

Less than a month after schools around Johnson County began reopening for in-person learning, about 60% of the county’s public school buildings have had to put at least one person in quarantine for exposure to the novel coronavirus. That’s according to Johnson County health officials, who briefed the Board of County Commissioners Thursday.

Public Health Director Sanmi Areola, Ph.D, said 104 of the 169 public school buildings in the county have “something going on related to COVID,” while community transmission overall remains high.

Elizabeth Holzschuh, an epidemiologist with the county health department, told county commissioners that quarantines linked to schools include students and staff, and that there are a variety of reasons, including school athletics, for positive cases and exposures. The schools and the county have been working together to handle the overwhelming workload of contact tracing, she said.

Testing in schools

Health officials are following a three-pronged approach to testing in schools, Holzschuh said.

The front line is to get testing for students who feel sick and are sent home. When that happens, the family is given a card to present at a county drive-thru testing site. Same-day testing is key because it quickly identifies any positive COVID-19 cases where a person is symptomatic, she said.

After that, health officials try to mitigate the spread in the classrooms by testing the remainder of the class where a positive case has been identified, Holzschuh said. That quickly identifies students or teachers who may have been infected but have only light symptoms. Those tests are saliva-based.

The third prong is random testing, which the county and other area health officials are working to implement, she said.

Officials are trying to be strategic about how they use saliva tests, she said, because of the overwhelming burden collecting those samples places on school staff.

“We’re on the phone every day with all our school districts,” she said. “The goal is to keep them open in a safe manner.”

Holzschuh reiterated the same precautions that have been effective in slowing the spread since the start of the pandemic: wear a mask, stay socially distanced, avoid parties or large gatherings and stay home if you’re sick.

Schools poised to bring more students back

Public school districts across Johnson County are forging ahead with plans to bring more students back for in-person learning in October.

Shawnee Mission Schools, the only Johnson County district to start the year with all students learning remotely, is poised to start bringing back some students in kindergarten through 2nd grade on Monday, Oct. 5.

USD 232 announced this week all elementary students who had chosen the district’s “in-person” model would be back at school learning full-time, starting Oct. 8, while middle and high school students would keep learning in the hybrid model.

In Blue Valley, district officials say all students K-12 who have chosen “in-person” learning will start attending school at least two days a week, starting Monday, Oct. 5.

On Thursday, the county health department revised its school reopening criteria, relaxing standards for bringing middle and high school students back for in-person learning. That move came as parents, including in Shawnee Mission, have continued to press district leaders to reopen schools more fully.

Meanwhile, the daily number of positive cases in Johnson County has stayed high. County health officials say the county has logged over 100 new positive cases per day for the last three weeks and last week’s 113 positive daily case count was the third highest since the start of the pandemic.

Testing rates in the metro area and across the nation have been down lately, Holzschuh said, for reasons that are not yet clear. “I think some people are choosing not to (get tested) because of the consequences of it,” she said.

Areola said, “The activity of the virus is very, very high in the county and we have to continue to do the best we can.”