After reviewing updated health data for the county and all three school facilities the Hiawatha School District is sending students back to school a day earlier than planned — voting 6-1 to resume school Wednesday, Dec 9 and all athletic and activity practices to start Tuesday of this week if possible.
The board met Monday night for a special meeting to review the learning phase after voting two weeks ago to go into remote learning due to increased county and school positive cases and quarantines.
Board President Tom Simmer cast the lone nay vote on both motions — to resume school and a separate motion to resume activities — as he felt the district needed a little more time in remote for safety purposes. He said he liked the fact that numbers had improved in the county and schools, but thinks “we need to keep a lid on it a little longer” and stay remote through the end of the year. He said he felt that last week’s vote to extend one more week has helped the numbers, but don’t think they are 100 percent yet.
Simmer, as well as the other board members all said they had received numerous emails and messages from concerned parents and teachers. The emails from parents went both ways — some were for staying remote while others wanted to return to on-site learning.
Simmer wanted to thank the community members and parents for their support and comments the last few weeks, noting some were satisfied with the board’s decisions and others were not.
“We all want students back in school,” he said, noting that safety was his No. 1 concern.
Superintendent Lonnie Moser also added to Simmer’s comments and thanked the board members for their diligence in meeting on a weekly basis to review the ever-changing scope of the effects of COVID-19 on the district. He said the board has tried to make the best decisions, based on the data and the guidance by health officials — both of which have changed as more becomes known about the Coronavirus.
Board member John Wright said some parents had reached out to him about financial issues caused by having their children on remote learning. Other board members discussed issues with the quality of work that students were turning in and shared concerns about students not getting the education and interactions with students and teachers they needed while on remote learning.
There was a focus of concern especially with elementary-age students not thriving during remote learning and Moser said the Kansas School Board was set to meet this week to discuss that very topic and how to better serve the preschool through age 9 students. He said the topic of discussion was weighing the risk of transmission vs. the risk of remote learning for elementary age students.
Board member Keith Erdley said he saw a dip in just the way his own two children were learning and he was very concerned with how other students in the district were coping while on remote learning.
“It’s time to get back into class, because we definitely need all kids to be on the same page,” he said.
Board member Ian Schuetz made a public apology to teachers — stating he knew this vote to send kids back to the classroom would cause them extra stress as some families had made it known they were planning to keep their kids on remote learning at least through the end of the year. This does cause some added stress on the teachers as they teach those students in the classroom, but also must interact through Zoom with the students who are in remote learning throughout the day.
The board made their final decision after hearing from County Health Officer Robin Downard, hospital providers and school nurses.
Downard updated that as of Monday evening she was reporting 798 total cases, 95 active, 5 hospitalized and 12 deaths. She said the two week positivity rate was slightly improved at 24.7 percent with 186 new cases the past two weeks. The positivity rate for the previous two weeks was 30.5 percent with 260 new cases those two weeks.
She also discussed the Center for Disease Control had changed it’s quarantine guidelines to a 10-day protocol, where if after five days of no symptoms a person can test on Day 6 and if the test comes back negative they can come out of quarantine on Day 8. If they choose not to test, it’s a full 10 days of quarantine. Downard said Brown County has not adopted this new quarantine quite yet — she is waiting on a mobile testing site to be set up soon at the Horton Armory first so the Hiawatha Community Hospital is not overwhelmed with additional testing.
Also, now that the school is returning to on-site learning, the new modified mask protocol will also go into effect, she reminded. This new protocol will limit the quarantines if students are all wearing masks, spread out 6 feet in a classroom setting. The quarantines will be more focused on high-risk activities such as sports, eating lunch, recess and other times when a student may not have a mask on.
Moser said he planned to have school nurses provide education about the new mask protocol to all school staff this week. In addition, there will be strict reporting procedures for students and staff not wearing masks. Also, masks have to be at least 2-ply for safety purposes.
The school nurses also provided information on each of the schools and none were in the red zone on the gaiting criteria chart that the district uses for guidance on what learning phase would be best. At the elementary there are 28 students in quarantine due to family member positives or other contacts. There are currently 4 students and 1 staff member positive. At the middle school, there are no positive students and 1 staff positive and at the high school there are 3 students positives and 0 staff.
Within the district, some custodians are out for COVID positives or quarantines, but Moser said that District Maintenance Director Chris Morey had a plan to move some around to cover each building.
The board also heard from Hiawatha Community Hospital providers Jodi Twombly and Danielle Jagels. Twombly reported an overall decline in patients with an average of 2-3 COVID patients daily. The hospital staff had been affected with up to a 20 percent drop in work force, but Twombly said it was stable with several staff expected to return soon.
Last week, the hospital saw a slight decrease in COVID testing — with Nov. 30 a very busy day and a slight decline the rest of the week.
Jagels said in a poll of all of the providers, five were in favor of returning to on-site learning, while four of them were in favor of staying remote. She did say that several said it was the most important for elementary age students to return to on-site learning as soon as possible.
Twombly said that the hospital has been keeping some COVID patients that did not require extensive care and some hospitals were still able to accept patients for transfer — while some others had filled up. She specifically mentioned Stormont Vail Hospital in Topeka, which has expanded patient rooms into waiting areas in order to meet the demand, but had seen a decline in COVID patients within the past few days so did have limited beds available.
The hospital providers said they have learned a lot about the Coronavirus since March and many patients are treated for severe respiratory symptoms with steroids, albuterol and other respiratory treatments to reduce inflammation. They said there are some anti-viral treatments that have been helpful as well.
Activities Director Kim Lillie discussed plans for “cohorting” groups of up to 50 people in the stands if the Kansas State High School Activities Association votes to repeal their recent vote of “no fans” until Jan. 28. The KSHSAA Appeals Board is recommending reconsideration of this vote and the Board of Directors were reviewing it again on Tuesday on possibly allowing 1-2 fans per student. Lillie told the board members she had enough room in the high school and middle school gyms to accommodate this amount for games.
Moser said the first home games were set for Friday and his administrative team would have plans in place for fans prior to then if KSHSAA repeals its earlier ban on fans.
Some parents may decide to keep their students on remote learning for the time being, and Moser said that will be handled on a case-by-case basis.
The School Board will meet again at 7 p.m. on Monday, Dec. 14 for its regular monthly board meeting, which will be aired via Zoom over the district’s Youttube channel 415 BOE, which is where recent meetings are available to view.