Guidelines for reopening Johnson County, Kansas, schools raises concerns for some parents

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OLATHE, Kan. — We’re getting a better look at how Johnson County, Kansas, schools could return this fall. The county released its “gating criteria” this week.

The county is using a green, yellow and red light approach for how schools can safely reopen. But some families are concerned the threshold for new cases is way too high and could put students and staff at risk.

A chart in the reopening school plan is jam-packed with information creating new concerns for Johnson County families who are contemplating how they’ll send kids back to school this fall.

“I don’t feel too confident yet. The gating criteria helped, but wasn’t what we were hoping for,” Blue Valley parent Heather Grimsley said.

The criteria shows if cases are steady or dropping for two weeks, and less than 15% of people tested for COVID-19 are positive, at least some students could return in-person.

Right now, new case numbers in Johnson County are down from a recent peak, and sit at 8.8% positive. But the county’s health director said there’s another critical factor to consider: the rate of community spread.

“We think that because of the mask mandate, we’ve changed the trajectory. Rather than exponential growth, we’re having, we seem to level off and perhaps even have some downward trend. But we want that to come down. At 100 new cases a day, that’s still too high to encourage in-person classes,” said Dr. Sanmi Areola, Johnson County Health Department director.

The gating criteria would allow elementary kids to go back in-person first. Middle and high schoolers, who’ve been shown to get infected and spread the virus more, wouldn’t go back until positivity rates drop below 10%.

But Grimsley thinks the positive rate to go back in-person should be much lower and argues we don’t know fully how kids are affected since most have been out of school and group settings for months.

“What happens when a school has an outbreak? What do they consider an outbreak? When will schools close or a classroom be isolated? There’s so much information we don’t know to make it seem like it’s safe to open schools in person right now,” Grimsley said.

Areola said getting to a safe school reopening will require the community’s help.

“If you want your children to be in school, wear a mask. Avoid crowded events. We need to bring transmission levels down to where us, as health officials, can say we’re confident in opening schools,” Areola said.

The health department is continuing to refine the gating criteria and will meet with superintendents again Aug. 17 to make recommendations for whether schools should be in-person or online to start the school year.

But many parents are being require to make enrollment decisions for their kids before that.

The Johnson County Health Department hopes to help answer parents questions during a Facebook live town hall Thursday at 5:30 p.m.

Questions should be submitted in advance by noon Thursday to JCDHE@jocogov.org or the Johnson County, Kansas Facebook page. A limited number of questions will be accepted during the Facebook Live session and will be answered as time allows. ASL will be provided.

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