Intense pressure from parents is pushing more school districts to allow students into school buildings for in-person learning, despite not meeting state and county gating criteria that recommends school districts continue solely to offer remote learning. 

There is no centralized database of which Kansas school districts are allowing kids back into classrooms in person, which districts are using virtual teaching, and which Kansas schools are using a combination of both this semester. However, in recent days, calls to return students to classrooms grow louder.

Blue Valley parents have been pushing hard to have schools opened and last week, school board members announced elementary students will begin full-time, in-person beginning Oct. 5. Middle and high school students will return to classrooms for two days per week.

On Monday evening, the Lawrence and Spring Hill school boards attended lengthy meetings that stretched into the early hours of Tuesday. In both districts, officials walked away with plans to allow some form of in-person learning within the next few weeks.

A divided Lawrence school board opted to begin a hybrid schedule on Oct. 19. The plan will divide students into two groups, only allowing each group inside school buildings on different school days. In Spring Hill, middle and high school students are tentatively scheduled to return to classrooms in hybrid fashion on Oct. 8 and 9 with plans to begin full time, in-person learning on Oct. 19.

Parents and students spoke to the Spring Hill board advocating for additional in-person opportunities at the start of the nearly 6-hour meeting. 

Tiffany Wright told the board that remote learning is taking a significant toll on the academic progress and health of her middle school and high school students.

“My middle school student is specifically experiencing those feelings of being overwhelmed,” she said. “Unlike you and me who are adults, she’s 12. She’s not mature enough to handle the multi-tasking and not having the face-to-face communication.”

The Kansas Department of Health and Environment adopted a set of color-coded gating criteria as recommendations for when it’s safe to open schools. In order for all classrooms to be open to students, the state must be in the green zone, meaning less than 5 percent of those tested on a rolling 14-day average receive a positive diagnosis for COVID.

Spring Hill officials previously adopted similar gating criteria recommended by the Johnson County Health Department, but a survey of district parents revealed that 55 percent of respondents wanted new gating criteria specific to USD 230. Sixty-six percent of those surveyed said they would support in-person learning with new gating criteria. Parents and students who spoke before the board Monday asked that local gating criteria include factors like mental health and educational progress in addition to COVID positivity rates.

Shawna Huntington, the parent of a fourth and a sixth-grader, was teary-eyed at the podium. Her fourth-grade son is in the classroom full-time, but her sixth-grade daughter remains at home, attending school virtually. Her son was excited for the extended time off last spring, but became despondent and withdrawn after two months. 

“He just wasn’t himself any longer,” she said.

Since he returned to the classroom, he’s a happy kid again.

“I would appreciate that my daughter be allowed to do the same. Remote learning is not working for her,” Huntington said. “Through the first weeks of school, we’ve had frustration, tears… she’s frustrated, and she’s sad and I am genuinely concerned for her mental health.”

Another mom, a nurse, said she has similar concerns about the students’ mental health.  

“I work at a local hospital,” she said. “(The virus) is real, but the mental health is more real… I am advocating for middle schoolers and high schoolers to get back. The amount of suicide attempts with our kiddos is astronomical right now.”

Michelle Dombrosky, a member of the Kansas State Board of Education, sobbed so hard at the podium it was difficult to understand what she was saying. She said she had just been notified moments before that a friend of one of her children was admitted to the hospital after a suicide attempt.

In addition to hearing from the public, a panel of health experts, including Johnson County Mental Health Director Tim DeWeese, addressed the board. Deweese admitted that mental health problems appeared to be on the rise, but he said school officials shouldn’t use that as a reason to reopen schools.

“I don’t believe that mental health or deaths by suicide should be used to ignore recommendations from public health officials,” he said.

However, the other health officials who addressed the board offered varying recommendations on what should be included in Spring Hill’s gating criteria.

“Our case rates are really still quite high,” said Elizabeth Holzchuh, an epidemiologist for the Johnson County Department of Health and Environment. “KDHE gating criteria puts us in the red zone, and I’m not anticipating us getting below that any time in the relative near future.”

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