The Hiawatha USD 415 School Board voted in a special meeting Monday night to extend remote learning with a proposed return to in-school learning date of Thursday, Dec. 10.
The board met via Zoom conference with the meeting being aired on the district’s YouTube channel. The vote on remote learning was 5-2 with Tom Simmer, Keith Erdley, Amy Kopp, Jeff Brockhoff and Ian Schuetz voting yes and John Wright and Andrea Groth voting against the motion.
This vote was made after hearing from local and school health officials about cases within the schools, county and concern over numbers increasing this week following the holiday.
County Health Officer Robyn Downard reported to the board that as of Monday night there were 716 total cases with 110 active and 9 deaths. She said the number of positive cases daily went down over the weekend, but Monday morning had started increasing a little as some Thanksgiving exposures had occurred.
She told board members she expected a trend of rising cases this week due to Thanksgiving holiday exposures.
The board also heard from Hiawatha Community Hospital providers Danielle Jagels and Jodi Twombly. Jagels told board members they have seen an increase in staff positivity with 22 positive cases — or 9 percent of staff — in November. She said of those community members tested, they are seeing a 34 percent positivity rate and currently have five in-patients with COVID. Twombly added that the hospital was roughly at 50 percent patient capacity.
Jagels said she polled all of the hospital providers and 8 out of 9 of them recommended extending remote learning due to concern over rising numbers in the community and within the school setting.
“We know students learn better in school,” she said, noting that the trending numbers in the community were of a concern and there were more cases in long term care facilities that led them to make the recommendation for continued remote learning.
The board also heard from district nurses and reviewed the gaiting criteria that had previously been adopted by the board as a guideline for determining whether remote, hybrid or on-site learning was most beneficial. According to numbers, the elementary was in the “red” in all but one section and is showing 8 students and 1 staff member positive.
Nurse Whitney McCauley said since most data to date has shown that most younger children aren’t getting the virus, she was “very concerned” about the multiple positives in elementary. She did confirm that the 8 total did include two family groups, plus individual positive cases.
The middle and high school numbers were slightly better, with most criteria out of the red zone — except for one area at the high school level. At HMS there were 3 positive students and 0 staff as of Monday. At the high school, there were 0 positive staff members and 7 positive students.
Head District Nurse Erin Wenger said the 7 positives at the high school did concern her if the district was considering allowing sports to resume soon.
She also reported that other district staff had been hit hard by the virus and if one more custodian or kitchen worker was gone from any of the buildings, then that building would potentially have to close as those services would not be available. As of Monday, two custodians and two kitchen staff members were out at the elementary, one custodian and one kitchen worker from the middle school and two custodians and one kitchen staff member from the high school.
Superintendent Lonnie Moser confirmed that meals were being served for pickup or delivery on Tuesdays and Thursdays during the remote learning phase.
Board members had extended discussion concerning whether to extend the remote learning. Board President Tom Simmer said he thinks that cases will start to spike this coming week due to exposure at Thanksgiving and that going back on Thursday of this week was too soon.
“I am not in favor of returning,” he said.
Board member Amy Kopp suggested extending the remote learning for just one more week — with a return to classroom scheduled for Dec. 10. She said this would allow health officials time to review data coming in concerning Thanksgiving exposures. Board members Jeff Brockhoff and Keith Erdley also agreed. Brockhoff said historically there is a spike after each holiday and Erdley said he didn’t really feel returning on the 10th would have an effect on community numbers.
Wright told the other board members he felt the students were safer in the schools where conditions were being monitored, rather than out in the community — potentially causing more spread.
Wright also questioned about whether there had been an issue with truancy increasing while the school was on remote and principals reported that had happened with a few students. Fordyce said her staff was doing a lot of following up with students and parents to ensure that students were turning in assignments. Gatz said they had some issues, but were keeping close tabs on students. Carver said his staff was doing the same and keeping tabs on the virtual apps where students were to log in for daily activities. Some grade levels were receiving paper packets with assignments and he said staff has been willing to deliver these if parents cannot get to the school to pick them up.
The board also voted to hold off on winter sports starting until Dec 10, with Wright casting the lone nay vote against the motion.
This discussion became a little heated as Wright said he felt board members were voting to postpone based “on emotion,” not data and having a “fear of the unknown.” He referenced last week’s Kansas High School Activities Association board of directors meeting, where it was determined that winter sports would continue on time, with a break from Dec. 23 to Jan. 8 but no fans would be allowed until Jan. 28. Wright said experts talked to KSHSAA board members and said that so far the data had shown limited player to player transmission.
Board member Ian Schuetz said he took exception to the remark about basing his decisions on emotion and felt like they all were focusing their decisions based on data from the hospital providers, county health officer and district nurses. Schuetz said he was casting his vote based on logic and to him it was logical to extend one week to determine what the numbers were at next Monday’s meeting. He said that would allow time for any Thanksgiving exposures to become known.
“We’re all trying to pretend our elementary numbers are fine,” he said.
Activities Director Kim Lillie answered questions from board members and said the coaches and players were ready to start practicing as the board allowed it. She said there are plans for livestreaming all games and she was working with other schools to make sure away games were also available to view on Facebook and YouTube. She said the band will be videoed playing and that also will be available for viewing.
Fordyce told the board members that coaches have plans in place to create “corhort groups” of players, where no more than 15 at a time would be at practice at the same time.
When asked, Downard did confirm that the Kansas Department of Health and Environment was still recommending quarantining an entire team — and the team they potentially would have played up to 48 hours prior — if one team member tests positive.
Board member Andrea Groth said she felt that the district should follow the Return to Learn Plan, where it stated that no activities would be held during a remote learning phase. Simmer, Schuetz, Brockhoff, Erdley and Kopp agreed, saying to stick to the current policy that was in place in the Return to Learn plan.
Simmer said he agreed with holding off on sports as well and was also concerned with returning back to school too soon. He discussed his personal battle with COVID-19 and said he has never had an illness that hung on quite this long.
“This thing has no friends,” he said.
Modified Quarantine Protocol
In addition, the board also voted 7-0 to adopt a modified mask protocol, as approved by the Brown County Commission and Brown County Health Department. This mask protocol reduces the number of people quarantined in a situation where students and staff are wearing their approved masks appropriately in a classroom situation or on a bus. Quarantines will focus more on high risk situations, such as lunch time, recess, sporting activities and other times when masks have been removed.
School officials said this would help in terms of reducing the number of staff and students affected by quarantines, noting that confirmed mask to mask transmission has been minimal.
HES Principal Paul Carver told board members that spreading students out 6 feet in all classrooms was a challenge, but they were considering dividers at each desk for lunch time to continue in the classrooms. At the high school, Principal Lori Fordyce said lunch time was a challenge, especially as weather was getting colder and they could not utilize outdoor picnic tables. She said her staff was working on a solution and locations to help spread the students out further, noting there are dividers on the tables. HMS Principal Kylie Gatz said each of the four grades at the middle school had designated separate lunch times and assigned seating and so far that had been working well.
Board members said that enforcement of masks would have to be top priority and that if students were repeat violators of not wearing them they could be asked to transfer to remote learning.
The next board meeting will be next Monday to evaluate the health situation within the school staff, students and the community.