Shawnee Mission School District to bring older students back to school for learning full time — what we know

The district says middle and high school students will return to in-person learning at school full time starting March 22. The district also projects that by that time, most district employees will have received at least their first dose of the COVID-19 vaccine. Photo credit Kyle Palmer.

The Shawnee Mission School District will bring middle and high school students back for in-person learning full time starting March 22.

The announcement made at Monday’s Board of Education meeting comes as COVID-19 community transmission rates in Johnson County have fallen to levels not seen since last summer.

At the same time, district employees are getting vaccinated at a higher-than-expected rate, with nearly 43% of SMSD employees having received at least their first dose already, according to district officials.

It’s important to note, this change will not impact students who have chosen a remote learning model. Those students will continue learning from home for the rest of this school year. This will also not affect elementary students, most of whom have been learning in person full time for weeks now.

Here are some other important things to know about the Shawnee Mission School District’s plan to return secondary students to in-person learning full time:

Details will vary from school to school

  • Schools have made plans for how students will enter and exit the building, transition from class to class, be allowed to go to the bathroom and eat lunch, among other procedures.
  • For details on each middle school’s reopening plan, go here.
  • For details on each high school’s reopening plan, go here.

JCDHE supports bringing secondary students back

  • County director of epidemiology Elizabeth Holzschuh told the board of education Monday that the Johnson County Department of Health and Environment supports a return to in-person learning for older students.
  • Holzschuh emphasized that it becomes more imperative that schools continue to follow mitigation practices like masking and social distancing as they bring more students back.
  • SMSD’s nearest neighboring districts in Johnson County — USD 232 in DeSoto, Blue Valley, and Olathe — have all either brought secondary students back for full-time, in-person learning already or plan to next month.
Shawnee Mission School District
During public comments Monday, several parents offered emotional testimony urging SMSD to reopen secondary schools more fully. Above, a woman stands just outside the board’s meeting room with a sign advocating for a return to in-person learning. Photo credit Kyle Palmer.

Masking remains the first and most important mitigation step

  • Students and staff will be required to wear masks at all times at school — except when actively eating or drinking at lunch — and district officials say proper masking will be even more critical as more students return to school buildings.
  • The district will not require students or staff to double-mask at school, though that has been shown to decrease transmission of COVID-19. 
  • Shelby Rebeck, the district’s Director of Health Services, said double-masking will be recommended in situations where maintaining 3-6 feet of social distance is not possible.
  • The district is buying 300,000 high-filtration KN95 face masks for use by students and staff.

Physical distancing will be hard — if not impossible — at times

  • District officials admit that when more middle and high school students return for full-time learning at school, maintaining 6 feet of social distance will be hard, if not impossible.
  • Even maintaining 3 feet of social distance will be a challenge in many classrooms when nearly all students are present.
  • Holzschuh said Monday there remains a “general concern about what happens when you put kids within 3 feet of each other for extended periods of time.”
  • The CDC recommends teachers try to stay at least six feet away from students as much as possible.
  • Other public health authorities, including the Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health, have said children and teens can be safe at 3 feet of social distance if everyone is properly masked.
Shawnee Mission School District
Middle and high school students, like these at SM East, currently attend school in person two days a week in the district’s hybrid model. Photo credit Emma Kate Squires.

The more students return, the harder contact tracing will become

  • The district plans to hire 10 additional nurses to help with contact tracing and testing as secondary students return.
  • Following recommendations from JCDHE, the district will change its contract tracing procedures to follow what’s known as the “airplane model”, or “2-row rule.”
  • Instead of quarantining everyone who was in the same class or space as a student who has been exposed to COVID-19, only those who were within 3 feet of that student will be asked to isolate or quarantine.
  • This change is aimed at easing the burden on the district’s contact tracers, but that means teachers will have to adhere faithfully to seating charts and students will have to follow schools’ procedures for moving around school buildings, so tracking a student’s potential contacts becomes less muddled.

Most SMSD staffers could be vaccinated by March 22

  • As of Monday, SMSD officials said nearly 43% of employees had received at least their first dose of the COVID-19 vaccine (which, by itself, has been shown to lower the risk of getting the disease by more than 90%.)
  • K-12 school employees in Johnson County are getting vaccinated through clinics being operated by Children’s Mercy. Holzschuh said Monday that Children’s Mercy is set to administer nearly 6,000 more first doses over the next two weeks.
  • That means that roughly 70% of all K-12 school employees in the county could have been given at least their first dose by the end of next week.
  • SMSD officials said Monday they were “optimistic” all district employees could have had at least their first dose by the end of March, one week after secondary students will have returned full time.