Schools adjust to limit COVID-19

By Mike Genet

When it started the regular school year in late August, Independence School District Superintendent Dale Herl knew his district was under a pandemic-shaded microscope.

Not only did the district start the fall semester on the planned date, but it offered students the choice to return with in-person classes, rather than starting all virtually, as everyone had finished the previous school year. This as cases in the metro area had started to rise again and Eastern Jackson County was, as it still is, considered a high-spread area. Herl said the district wouldn’t be opening if officials didn’t believe it could be done safely.

A fourth grade student at Independence’s Spring Branch Elementary peers through a magnifying glass early in the fall semester. Area school districts have experienced few cases of COVID-19 since they returned with many in-person classes in August and September.

Thus far, Herl and some other area school administrators say the school year has gone well, as relatively few COVID-19 cases have sprung up in the schools and none have had to reverse course on in-person classes.

“We were very aware other districts were going to be watching us,” Herl said, “to decide when to start and in what form.”

Independence middle school students arrive at Nowlin Middle School for class early in the fall semester. Area school districts have experienced few cases of COVID-19 since they returned with many in-person classes in August and September.

“The school year is going better than we could’ve hoped,” he said. “I’m so proud of the work we put in prior to the year starting. With our preparation that we did going into summer school, and that went so well, we were confident we could have school successfully.”

Updated at midday Thursday, the district reported 13 active cases among 11,923 in-person students and staff – or 0.11 percent. Another 0.19 percent were in quarantine due to exposure in schools.

The district had one instance a few weeks ago in which a freshman football team had to precautionarily quarantine due to an active case, but no spread occurred. Since all those students were on the hybrid model, classroom disruption was minimal.

“That’s why we set up the learning models how we did, if we had quarantines,” Herl said.

“We’ve had a limited number of COVID cases, and what we’re finding is cases not transmitted in school.” 

The reality, he said, is with all the safeguards in place and updated air filtration in the buildings’ ventilation systems, Herl said, “school is often the safest place for some students.”

In the Independence district, in-person elementary students are in school all days, while middle school and high school students are on a hybrid model. About 25 percent of students started the year virtually, though schools have been allowing in some students who started learning virtually to return in-person, as social-distance space allows, and are offering groups such as seniors or special education students a chance to do the same. But Herl said there is no set target date for having all students back in person, and he doesn’t foresee doing away with virtual learning this school year.

Grain Valley’s Board of Education decided last week to keep the hybrid model in place for middle school and high school students through the second quarter, which goes into January. Students at all levels had a choice to have all virtual learning, and elementary students who go in person are there each day.

Deputy Superintendent Brad Welle said the administration recommended continuing with the hybrid model when parent survey results showed that, given just virtual and in-person options, the high school virtual learners would jump from 10 to 25 percent. 

“We’re engaged with the highest percentage of students right now with the hybrid model,” he said. 

The district’s case dashboard shows eight student and six staff cases since the school year started, while 127 students and 14 staff have had to isolate or quarantine at some point due to cases. The dashboard does not list an active count in either case. 

“We have one classroom where a class had to be out for two weeks, and we knew going in that was a possibility,” Welle said. “I would’ve thought at this point, it had happened a dozen times.”

The larger struggle sometimes can be having enough subs to adequately cover quarantine cases, Welle said. Also, the district is trying to offer better immediate help with virtual learning, not just with tech support but with academic questions, and to offer transportation if necessary to facilitate more face-to-face meetings with students and teachers. Ideally, he said, this relieves parents of some of the burden associated with virtual learning. 

“We want the parent to be the parent and not have to be the teacher, too,” Welle said.

Fort Osage Superintendent Jason Snodgrass also said he’s been proud of his district’s handling the safety protocols thus far. 

From about 5,000 students in the district, about 26 percent selected all virtual, he said, and in-person students grades K-4 are in school all five days a week while grades 5-12 are on a hybrid model. Career and tech center students are in-person five days a week, and alternative school and early childhood students are in-person four days. Families will get to choose soon on learning platforms for the second semester, though Snodgrass said the district’s hope is to eventually transition older in-person students to all five days in person if that can be done safely.

Among students and staff, Snodgrass said 0.16 percent are active cases this week (last week was 0.14 percent, or eight individuals), with 0.28 percent in quarantine for possible exposure. 

“We’ve had limited contractions, but we know that’s something that can be ever-changing,” Snodgrass said. “We’re very cautious and very mindful.”

“We have had to quarantine various students, but the numbers have been relatively low,” he said, and they haven’t had to quarantine a whole team or approached the need to close off a whole classroom or building.

From last week, Blue Springs Schools reported 15 new cases in the district over the week, or a mere 0.13 percent of more than 11,200 in-person students and staff, with just one case related to school spread and 99 people in quarantine due to possible exposure. Since school started after Labor Day, the district has reported 60 cases.

The district started after Labor Day with nearly 30 percent of students choosing virtual learning. The district did not use a hybrid model.

No matter how smooth operations might appear from the outside, or to a casual observer, Welle emphasizes that the pandemic has amplified or even multiplied the unseen work, particularly in areas such as human resources and school nursing.

“It brings a whole new dimension of responsibilities behind the scenes,” he said. “Everyone has additional responsibilities, and it’s been a lot of work. Everybody’s job description has changed somehow, and the result has been surprisingly well.”

“Behind the scenes, the wheels have to spin so much quicker.”