USD 232 in De Soto becomes first JoCo district to bring older students back to school full-time this semester

Citing the benefits of in-person over remote learning, the USD 232 school board on Monday unanimously agreed to bring middle and high schoolers back to the classroom in a few weeks. Above, students learning on site at Mill Creek Middle in October 2020. Photo courtesy USD 232. File photo.  

Middle and high school students at USD 232 in De Soto are going back to full-time, on-site learning Feb. 1.

Citing the benefits of in-person over remote learning, the rising numbers of D and F grades, the detriment to students’ mental health, and growing evidence that the risk of COVID-19 spread within school buildings remains low, the USD 232 school board on Monday unanimously agreed to bring middle and high schoolers back to the classroom in a few weeks.

USD 232 secondary students were in remote learning since Nov. 30. Board members stressed that their decision is evidence of their abundance of caution based on the level of risk.

USD 232 only JoCo district taking full-time approach for middle, high school students

USD 232 appears to stand alone as the only school district in Johnson County bringing secondary students back to the classroom full time in the coming weeks. All other school districts in Johnson County, including Shawnee Mission, have secondary students in either hybrid or remote learning environments. Some school boards are convening soon to review their data for the start of the semester.

“We all agree that having students back on site is what’s best for students. Our conversation all year long is about when that happens, and what are the circumstances under when it can happen,” said Superintendent Frank Harwood. File photo.

The second semester for USD 232 begins Jan. 20, at which time secondary students will enter the hybrid learning model. Elementary students are already on site.

If COVID-19 trends suggest that going on site for secondary students is too risky, then the school board will reconvene in a special meeting to review the data and discuss the district’s options.

‘What’s best for students’

The school board also agreed to accept a modifier to the Kansas Schools Gating Criteria. Created by Superintendent Frank Harwood’s internal COVID-19 advisory committee, the modifier considers the total percentage of weekly quarantines and isolations of both students and staff within the school district, especially when juxtaposed with the number of student absences unrelated to the novel coronavirus.

“We all agree that having students back on site is what’s best for students,” Harwood said. “Our conversation all year long is about when that happens, and what are the circumstances under when it can happen.”

The modifier would decrease the gating criteria’s score when quarantines and isolations are low. On the other hand, it would increase the gating criteria’s score when quarantines and isolations are high.

Here are the if-then scenarios as the total percentage of weekly quarantines and isolations among staff and students change:

  • 2% or less — subtract 2 points
  • Above 2% but under 3% — subtract 1 point
  • Above 3% but under 5% — no change
  • Above 5% but under 7% — add 1 point
  • Above 7% — add 2 points

Based on the school district’s new scoring method for the gating criteria, COVID-19 trends put the school district in the yellow category with a score of 10 out of 20. As of Jan. 6, 198 students and staff were in quarantine or isolation, or 2.84% of the district’s total on-site population of 6,981 students and staff. Applying the new modifier, the district would subtract 1 point from the total, bringing the district to the green category by just 1 point.

Teachers’ response

The De Soto Teachers’ Association sent a letter Sunday to the school board requesting that secondary students remain in at least hybrid learning until a vaccine is available for all teachers who choose to receive it.

Emily Valdez, president of the De Soto Teachers’ Association, said that teacher survey results indicate that just under 70% of 121 secondary teachers who took the survey shared that they feel uncomfortable returning students to full on-site learning until the vaccine is available.

While some board members wanted to see secondary students come back to the classroom at the start of the semester, the board ultimately agreed that allowing a transition through the hybrid model would give students and staff time to practice risk mitigation protocols, such as mask-wearing, physical distancing and regular hand-washing.

“We are not doing this haphazardly,” said Ashley Spaulding, a board member. “We are not making these decisions without basing them on science.”