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OLATHE, Kan. — Olathe Public Schools decided to start the school year with virtual learning at the middle and high school levels, and elementary students in a hybrid model, the district announced Wednesday.

In the hybrid model, elementary students are divided into two groups by alphabet. Group A students attend school in-person on Monday and Tuesday, and learn from home Wednesday through Friday.

Group B students attend school in-person on Thursday/Friday and participate in learning activities at home the first three days of the week. Students will have daily contact with teachers when they’re not meeting in-person.

The first day of virtual classes for the older students is set for Sept. 8 on the district’s Systemwide Online learning plan. The district says it will analyze data on Sept. 22 and reevaluate its next steps.

“We have had challenges, none quite this significant,” Olathe school board member LeEtta Felter said. “We’ve been able to offer two pathways: in person or online. We’re so grateful for the support in the community that has allowed us to be able to fund that. Think of the magnitude of the technology requirements.”

Felter said public education is the economic driver in their community, and she understands everyone’s needs are different.

“There’s no right answer for the whole community,” she said. “Every family needs to decide what is best for their circumstances, based on their children, the grandparents, everybody interacting in their lives.”

Felter also said there is a framework of federal guidelines that allows the district to accommodate teachers who cannot work inside a school building.

“If you have a reason that would make it dangerous for you to teach during this pandemic, hopefully we can move you to a remote model where you can teach via the internet,” she said.

Meghan Blake’s son Noah is starting kindergarten this year. The busy mom works at a preschool, and also takes care of Noah’s younger sister Ellie. Megan and her husband Thomas are weighing different options now that the district has announced its hybrid plans for elementary students.

“Should we look at a private faith-based kindergarten? Should I find a nanny? Should I find a friend that’s just hanging at home and just drop him off those few days?” Blake asked.

It’s the same decisions thousands of parents are weighing as this strange new semester quickly approaches.

“We’re just going with the flow. There’s nothing else you can really do,” she said. “I want to do what’s best for his health, too, though and everybody else’s health, so we’re just going with the flow; don’t really have an answer.” 

Olathe’s announcement comes after the Johnson County Department of Health and Environment said Tuesday that public school reopenings are in the “red zone.”

That means, based off gating criteria, health officials recommended middle and high school students utilize remote learning for now.

The health department’s recommendations are not requirements. Johnson County’s six public school districts are allowed to make their own decisions.

What other districts are doing

Shawnee Mission and DeSoto schools already announced they plan to have students at all grade levels begin the year with fully remote learning. That’s a slight change from the health department’s guidance.

Gardner-Edgerton told families Tuesday it will follow the recommendation. Kindergarten through 4th grade students will come back for in-person learning, but 5th through 12th graders will be learning remotely.

Spring Hill has also decided that older students will start remotely. Elementary students will still attend in person. It’s the only public district in Johnson County that did not delay classes until after Labor Day. USD 230 will start classes on Aug. 26.

At a Tuesday night meeting, the Blue Valley school board voted to rescind a previous decision to follow the county’s gating criteria. They will now take the next few days to form their own.