SMSD middle and high school students return to in-person learning

Some Shawnee Mission School District middle and high school students are returning to in-person classes for the first time since March.

Shawnee Mission Schools’ plan to gradually reopen schools amid the COVID-19 pandemic entered a new, more expansive phase Monday, with some middle and high school students returning to in-person classes for the first time since March.

The district will now conduct face-to-face learning for secondary students in a hybrid model with students attending school two days a week. Meanwhile, starting Monday, students in pre-K through 6th grade who chose the district’s in-person learning model will attend school every day.

SMSD has been more deliberate than other neighboring districts in Johnson County in reopening its schools. It was the only district in the county to start the year after Labor Day with all its students learning remotely, and it is now the last district to bring back students at all grade levels for in-person learning.

“This has been one really rough start to the school year. I want to thank everyone for hanging in there,” Superintendent Mike Fulton said at a board of education meeting earlier this month.

Secondary in hybrid mode, elementary back full-time

Middle and high school students who have chosen the district’s in-person learning model will attend classes at school two days a week.

Students will be divided into two groups, or cohorts:

  • Students with last names A-Lamb will attend in-person classes on Monday and Tuesday, while students with last names Lamb-Z will work remotely at home.
  • Students with last names Lamb-Z will attend in-person classes on Wednesday and Thursday, while students with last names A-Lamb will work remotely at home.

On Fridays, all middle and high school students will be expected to attend classes online.

Meanwhile, all SMSD students in preK-6th grade who have chosen in-person learning will start a full-time, at-school schedule starting Monday. Some elementary students began attending some in-person schooling as early as Oct. 5, and the district has gradually expanded its in-person offerings for elementary students in the weeks since.

The return to everyday in-person learning is a relief for some parents, including Joe and Skylar Bellinger, who have two sons, one in kindergarten and the other in 3rd grade.

The Bellingers’ younger son, who is in kindergarten, worked at home in a space he and his family decorated. He returned to some in-person learning earlier this month. Photo credit Joe and Skylar Bellinger.

“Hybrid [which the boys began earlier in October] was more challenging than we thought.  Once the kids got to go in person, they were just ready to be back every day.  But we do understand it was worth it to get them ready and prepared to go back safely,” the Bellingers wrote to the Post in an email over the weekend.

Despite that, the Bellingers praised their sons’ teachers and classmates for following recommended safety precautions to prevent the spread of the disease.

“All the kids are doing such a fantastic job with the new routines and safety precautions!  Our principal and teachers have given us such great feedback! The kids don’t seem to mind wearing masks at all and they totally understand the importance of staying with their classroom pods. Our kids happily report the new rules and we feel extremely safe with them at school,” they said.

Students who chose the district’s “remote only” learning option at the start of the year will continue in that mode through the rest of the semester.

‘We have not seen transmission in schools’

Officials with the Johnson County Department of Health and Environment say it appears schools, at least so far, are not major vectors for spreading COVID-19. They attribute that, in part, to schools closely following mitigation protocols recommended by public health officials.

“I am relieved. We have not really seen transmission in schools,” county epidemiologist Elizabeth Holzschuh told the SMSD Board of Education at its Oct. 12 meeting. “That means the masking and the social distancing and cohorting have gone very well.”

However, Holzschuh noted that the biggest source of transmission related to schools appears to be high school sports. JCDHE reported earlier this month that more than half of all public schools in Johnson County had had to impose at least one quarantine on either students or staff since the start of the year. Many of those quarantines have been connected to sports teams or extracurricular activities.

Since August, parents have pressed school districts in Johnson County to reopen more fully and to also allow sports. File photo of USD 232 school board meeting in September. Photo credit Leah Wankum.

Still, there’s growing evidence that if safety protocols are followed, transmission inside schools themselves is limited. Two recently published international studies both found no consistent link between having schools open and an increased spread of the disease. And researchers at Harvard’s H.T. Chan School of Public Health say continuing to keep schools closed for in-person learning, at this point in the pandemic, may do more harm than good for students who benefit emotionally and cognitively from coming to school.

In Johnson County, several districts are publicly tracking the number of positive cases linked to their schools.

In Blue Valley, which has had all students in some form of in-person learning since Oct. 5, the district has reported a total of 104 positive cases since the start of September, when some elementary students were in hybrid learning.

In USD 232 in De Soto, the district has reported 31 total school-linked positive cases. Most of them — 22 cases — occurred in middle or high schools.

Shawnee Mission spokesperson David Smith said SMSD is working on its own COVID-19 dashboard and plans to unveil a version of it at the board of education meeting Monday night. Smith said, so far, 141 individuals in the district are currently in “active isolation.” He said that total includes positive cases, presumed positives and those exhibiting symptoms of COVID-19.

Current county COVID-19 trends

On Monday, JCDHE’s COVID-19 dashboard put the county in the “orange” zone for school reopening, which allows for in-person learning for elementary students and hybrid learning for secondary students, if schools are following “safe opening principles” like masking and social distancing.

The county’s percent positivity rate, a much-watched metric for determining how much community spread is potentially happening, has ticked up in recent days to 7.2%, as of Monday.

The county’s incidence rate for new cases has also seen an increase in recent days, to 248 per 100,000 residents. That number is near the limit that could push the county into the “red zone,” where remote-only learning is recommended. But Holzschuh told the SMSD board at the Oct. 12 meeting that a variety of factors should be taken into account, and not just one variable, in order to make decisions about how fully open schools should be.

“This is not a ‘You’re only as good as your worse factor’ scenario,” she said. “Say, if we as a community still have hospital capacity, then a rise in cases is not as big a deal. If we’re continuing to do all the things we’re doing, and not seeing increased spread [in schools], then we’re comfortable staying open.”