Middle and high school students in USD 232 in De Soto will return to remote learning on Nov. 30

Beginning Nov. 30, middle and high school students in the USD 232 school district in De Soto will move to the remote learning environment. File photo.

Beginning Nov. 30, middle and high school students in the USD 232 school district in De Soto will move to remote learning.

The USD 232 Board of Education on Monday voted 4-3 to accept a recommendation from the district’s internal COVID Advisory Committee to label USD 232 in the Orange Category per the Kansas Schools Gating Criteria. Elementary students will remain in the on-site learning environment. Members Bill Fletcher, John Gaignat and Rachele Zade voted no.

USD 232’s decision comes shortly after Shawnee Mission and Blue Valley school districts made similar moves in recent days.

The school board also agreed to discontinue outside facility rentals when the district is in the orange and red categories of the state’s gating criteria.

Fletcher tried a last-ditch effort to keep middle schoolers from going remote, but four of his colleagues voted against his motion to define middle school students as separate from high school students.

Fletcher’s proposal would have revised the school district’s interpretation of the Kansas Schools Gating Criteria, which some board members opposed because families and staff need consistency. Rick Amos, Danielle Heikes, Stephanie Makalous and Ashley Spaulding voted no.

The school board’s decision follows a surge of rising COVID-19 cases and hospitalizations in Johnson County. While community spread of the coronavirus is evident, much of the USD 232 school board’s lengthy, emotional debate centered around staff shortages, student absenteeism and a lack of substitute teachers to grapple with the challenges of simultaneous on-site and remote learning.

“I want students in the classroom, but if we don’t have teachers for them, that is the biggest issue,” Amos said. “Our teachers, our staff, our administration has done an unbelievable job. We can’t thank them enough. We can’t thank the students enough. But we’ve hit a point where we can’t really control it anymore.”

Superintendent Frank Harwood said that if community spread gets under control by Nov. 30 and trends show that USD 232 is in the yellow category, the school district may bring secondary students back to hybrid mode.

Citing trends that show spikes in the number of positive cases that occur after holidays, Amos and other board members said they sought consistency for school families when interpreting the gating criteria.

“There’s no winning in this; there’s no winning until we’re all back in school,” Amos added.

Below is an assessment of USD 232’s data for the Kansas Schools Gating Criteria as of Nov. 12:

Mental health, D and F grades remain top concern

Meanwhile, Harwood reported a large increase in the number of students who have received a D and/or F grade as well as a spike in total D and F grades in the first quarter of 2020. Harwood noted that students participating in the Optional Remote learning environment had more D and F grades than students on site.

Some board members also stressed that mental health must factor into decision-making.

Below is a table of the low grades as presented by Harwood:

Board members and some members of the public said the lower grades and mental health strains on students, staff and families are evidence that remote learning isn’t working. Harwood noted that district staff is working to determine if the low grades are evidence of students failing to turn in assignments or if they are struggling to learn.

“I’m seeing it: Students are failing classes because they’re online,” said Brent Smith, student council president at De Soto High. “I really hope you take into consideration the fact that students do not learn well online. They will continue to fail classes, and the reality is, COVID is not spreading within the walls of our school. There could be COVID in our schools, but the safety precautions schools have taken — there is no risk for COVID spreading in our schools.”

Board members thanked the staff and students for doing their best to prevent and mitigate community spreads. Some mentioned the dozens of emails from school families that reflect a mix of perspectives on the district’s approach to learning during the pandemic. Some want in-person learning no matter what, while others favor more cautious approaches.

“We are all on the same side of wanting kids in school,” Spaulding said. “We want to do it in the right way, though. I am just imploring our entire community — we are on this trend of moving right to the red, and we have to work together as a community to prioritize in-person education for our children, and that means getting this community spread under control.”

Some board members also expressed concern for “screen time” fatigue, with older students moving to remote learning five days a week. Harwood said individual school administrators are reviewing options to obtain additional face-to-face support between teachers and students who are struggling.

USD 232 sees increase in staffing shortages

USD 232 also faces staffing shortages. Most recently from Nov. 9 to 13, the school district had 213 total absences/vacancies, and 23 of those were left unfilled. USD 232 has about 200 substitute teachers, but only 99 of them have taken a job this year. Here are some staffing numbers:

And the most recent staffing data for November:

“We’re focusing tonight on whether or not we can keep our kids in school; for me, the issue is resources,” Heikes said. “How do we keep the doors open when we’re not able to fill our open positions right now? That’s the crux of the issue right now. We’re in crisis mode.

“I know mental health is a concern… but we are in unprecedented times with a pandemic that I cannot deny. Whatever we do tonight is not a final answer. This is fluid, this is evolving, and we will continue to revisit this time and time again until COVID is no more and our kids are back in school 100% of the time.”

District officials said the YouTube livestream will remain available to view through the end of Tuesday.