Some Johnson County districts going virtual after health department recommendation

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OVERLAND PARK, Kan. — The Johnson County Health Department is now recommending schools start the year with most students attending classes online, based on growing COVID-19 cases.

It’s a recommendation that’s already proving divisive among parents and students. 

In the largest Johnson County school districts, nearly three-fourths of all parents wanted kids to return to school buildings for face-to-face instruction, and now that’s likely not going to happen.

Shawnee Mission and DeSoto schools have already announced they plan to have students at all grade levels begin the year with fully remote learning.

Gardner-Edgerton told families Tuesday it will follow the health department’s guidelines and welcome Kindergarten through 4th grade students back for in-person learning, but 5th through 12th graders will be learning remotely.

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

Olathe and Spring Hill have not made any announcements at this time.

The decisions all stem from gating criteria established by the Johnson County Department of Health and Environment. On Tuesday, the department said when it comes to schools reopening, the county is in the “red zone.”

The red zone is a recommendation for schools to begin with virtual learning for middle and high school students. Elementary students could be allowed to go back in person.

“What we try to do is balance health with the need for education and the need for social interactions and mental, emotional benefits of interacting in schools and with extra-curricular activities, but the over-arching consideration for us has to be health,” said Dr. Sanmi Areola, Johnson County health director.

Some parents were concerned enough that they opted for virtual school during enrollment periods.  But the majority of parents wanted an in-person option, and feel like now, the rug’s being pulled from under them.

“For the 75% of us who want in-person learning, I don’t think it’s fair to take that choice away from us,” Blue Valley parent Jami Campbell said. “I think that it’s a case-by-case basis, and each family needs to decide what’s best for them. So both sides should be supported in doing so.”

The health department started screening kids ages 5-15 just last week and said children as young as 5 are getting the virus. Right now, 11.2% of all people getting tested for COVID-19 in Johnson County are positive.

“We should assume that 10% of people coming in — students, staff or teachers — are possibly carrying the infection. You’re going to have people that start school who are already infected,” Areola said.

Individual school districts will now choose if they’ll adopt the health department’s recommendations, which could also stop sports and activities from happening this fall.

That’s what Shawnee Mission will do.

Superintendent Mike Fulton said practices already taking place, like band and football, will wind down by the end of this week.

Fulton said they’re considering the idea of pushing fall sports and activities to the spring if the pandemic continues.

“Nothing definitive yet on that, but we recognize that having students involved in activities and athletics is really important. We want that to happen, but we want to do it safely,” he said.

Some parents worry about the impact of it all on students.

“I think we have to acknowledge that in the spring, there was a learning loss. Students probably fell behind, and we haven’t really been given an opportunity to assess that learning loss,” said Mary Ann Woirhaye, a Blue Valley parent.

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