Shawnee Mission students return to school under COVID-19 cloud — here’s what you need to know

Shawnee Mission South students

Shawnee Mission students return to school on Jan. 5 as the Omicron variant makes its way through the Kansas City metro. Here's what parents need to know before the new semester begins. Above, Shawnee Mission South students in class. File photo.

Shawnee Mission students are heading back to school Wednesday, Jan. 5, for a new semester, just as COVID-19 cases are hitting all-time highs in the Kansas City metro.

The second semester is starting with a new COVID-19 mitigation plan in place that includes optional masking for middle and high school students.

That plan was initially approved by the school board in November and narrowly upheld by the board in a special meeting Monday.

Blue Valley and USD 232 students are also returning to school today. You can read more about those districts’ COVID-19 mitigation plans here

At the same time, the Omicron variant is making its way through the Kansas City metro.

Steve Stites, chief medical officer for The University of Kansas Health System, said in KU’s daily health briefing Tuesday that if the rules of infection control aren’t taken seriously, “this [COVID-19] curve will bend us.”

“Omicron and COVID are everywhere,” he said. “If you refuse to take precautions, it will find its way to you now more than anytime during the pandemic because Omicron is very transmissible.”

Here’s what Shawnee Mission parents and families need to know as students return to in-person classes:

Should all students be tested for COVID-19 before returning to school this semester?

  • No, Shawnee Mission Superintendent Michelle Hubbard said on KU’s daily health briefing Tuesday.
  • While it’s a good idea to have your student tested before returning to school, she said, it wouldn’t be possible for the district to do that for all 27,000 students.

How can students stay safe at school?

  • This advice hasn’t changed. First, health experts say eligible students (which is nearly all school-aged children at this point) should get vaccinated and boosted as soon as possible.
  • Currently, the Johnson County Department of Health and Environment’s online COVID-19 dashboard reports that 62% of Johnson County residents aged 12-17 are fully vaccinated, while 21.5% of those aged 5-11 are fully vaccinated.
  • In addition, local public health leaders still encourage students to wear masks at school and are urging people to upgrade from cloth masks to KN95 masks, if possible (though, like COVID-19 tests, these are increasingly in short supply.)
  • Elizabeth Holzschuh, JCDHE’s director of epidemiology, told the Shawnee Mission school board Monday that research shows cloth masks may not be as effective against Omicron, which has a higher viral load and transmits more easily.
  • Holzschuh suggested upgrading to KN95 masks, or double masking with a surgical and cloth mask.

What happens if there’s an outbreak of COVID-19 at a Shawnee Mission school?

  • According to the district’s COVD-19 mitigation plan, if 3% or more of an individual school’s student body is either positive, presumed positive or in quarantine, the entire school will return to masking for at least two weeks — or until the number of cases or quarantines drops below 3%.

What if an individual school outbreak really gets out of control?

  • We don’t know exactly what will happen.
  • Holzschuh told the school board Monday that there’s no scenario in which the department would shut down a school building.
  • If COVID-19 leads to a major staffing shortage or overwhelming number of student absences, Holzschuh said, then it would become a district decision on how to handle it.
  • It’s important to note that Shawnee Mission and other Kansas district no longer have the option to do all-remote learning for an extended period of time if there is trouble managing COVID-19 spread. That’s because a Kansas law passed last year limits districts to 40 hours total of remote instruction for an entire school year.

How will contact tracing be managed this upcoming semester?

  • Hubbard said on KU’s daily health briefing Tuesday that, in compliance with JCDHE guidance, Shawnee Mission will not be focusing on contact tracing this semester.
  • With the number of cases that are expected, Hubbard said, the district simply won’t be able to keep up.
  • Hubbard said folks should focus on the “layered” mitigation approach instead, including getting vaccinated and boosted and wearing masks in public.