Local schools keep adapting to pandemic

By Mike Genet mike.genet@examiner.net

School districts have spent the past few weeks grappling with decisions about whether to maintain some in-person classes or shift to all virtual learning, and for some those decisions will still be up for question after Thanksgiving as COVID-19 cases continue to surge around the metro area.

Students across Eastern Jackson County, like these at Osage Trail Middle School in the Fort Osage School District, have adapted to many changes this fall as the COVID-19 pandemic has intensified.

While the Grain Valley School District shifted last week to virtual classes across the board, with plans to bring most younger students back to classrooms after break, and the Blue Springs School District will shift older students to virtual after Thanksgiving until Christmas, the Independence and Fort Osage districts plan to continue their hybrid model for older students – for now.

“We’re having discussions pretty much every day about every scenario,” Independence Superintendent Dale Herl said over the weekend, before the district started a week-long break. “We’ve been fortunate with our cases, while rising slowly, that we’re not seeing transmission in schools.”

If that changes, however, ISD would alter its current setup, in which elementary students are in-person and middle and high school students on a hybrid schedule, meaning some days in class and some days of virtual learning.

Fort Osage has a similar setup.

“We’re continuing to monitor the case numbers, quarantine numbers and sub-fill rate,” Superintendent Jason Snodgrass said. “We’ll plan to continue as we are through the first semester, but pivot to other options if we needed to.”

About 25 percent of students across the district started the school year with virtual learning, and a handful here and there have returned to in-person learning. About the same percentage started the year virtually in the Fort Osage District. Right now about 23 percent are scheduled for virtual learning in the second semester.

As of last Friday, ISD reported 41 active cases from students and staff, but spread out enough that only two buildings have more than three cases. According to the district’s dashboard, among nearly 12,000 in-person students and staff, 1.1 percent (at least 130 people) are in quarantine due to possible exposure. 

At Fort Osage last week, about 25 students and staff from among 5,570 had active cases, with another 1.5 percent (83 people) in quarantine.

Besides cases and possible transmission in schools, the other factor school districts have weighed is the sub-fill rate – how well they’re able to fill substitute teaching slots as needed.

That was part of the reason Grain Valley and Blue Springs administrators decided to shift. 

Grain Valley Superintendent Marc Snow said he hopes the planned temporary shift will be just that and allow the district to ride out the worst. While elementary students who had been in-person are scheduled to return after Thanksgiving, middle and high school students will stick with virtual learning until after the Christmas break.

In the two days before going all virtual, the sub-fill rate had dipped below 60 percent. 

“We’re seeing a lot more students and staff get it, and with the contact tracing, we just see (the absences) escalating,” Snow said. “This will allow us to shift resources to the elementaries to try to keep them open. We’re trying to keep as many kids in school as possible.”

In a message to district families, Snow said the district “held on as long as we could.”

“This is not where we wanted to be and we did not want to go full virtual,” he wrote, “but having so many staff out and with not enough subs, gives us little choice.”

Grain Valley reported 12 new cases among students each of the past two weeks, after 15 students the whole school year prior to that. The past two weeks also 17 new cases among staff, after 11 in all prior weeks. Quarantine numbers also took similar leaps. 

The Blue Springs School District has not used a hybrid model for older students, and about 25 percent of students across the district have been virtual this year. The district reported 65 new cases last week – or 0.57 percent among 11,233 students and staff – while another 392 quarantined for the week due to possible exposure. Since the school year started, the district has reported 269 cases, or 2.4 percent of the total. The cases and especially quarantines led to more staff absences than could be handled, the district said two weeks ago after officials decided to shift.  

“The unfilled jobs have started to become unmanageable district-wide, and as we enter cold and flu season, we know this challenge will worsen before it gets better,” the district said in a statement. “In the two weeks following Halloween, our district has seen a spike in COVID-19 cases, and we believe that the trend will continue and possibly worsen following Thanksgiving break.”

Herl said rotating staff in-fill and the current sub pool have allowed Independence Schools to manage their sub rate well enough, and when other area districts decided to go virtual it led to increased applications. Likewise, Snodgrass said that through in-staff rotation and recruiting more subs, the district has been able to fill well enough to this point.

In addition, the Lee’s Summit School District last week shifted all students to virtual learning starting this week through the first week of January, citing the sharp rise in cases and quarantines. Grades 4-12 had been on a hybrid model prior for a month prior to that.

At St. Michael the Archangel High School in northern Lee’s Summit, students have had various weeks of virtual, hybrid and mostly in-person learning, and for a week after Thanksgiving they’ll be virtual, per advice of the bishop of the Roman Catholic Diocese. 

“Hopefully we’ll be in person after that,” Principal Jodi Briggs said. “We shift as needed. We had a great stretch of being in-person since early-October.”

Having block scheduling has helped St. Michael fill most sub slots in-house or with adjunct staff, Briggs said, and admittedly it’s easier to shift suddenly with 350 students as opposed to thousands.

“Our motto has been pivot and pray, and we’re doing a lot of pivoting,” Briggs said, “but if it means keeping students in school, that’s what we do.”

As of now, winter sports are moving forward in the metro area, with various restrictions in place. For example, Snodgrass said basketball players and wrestlers are learning to compete with masks. 

It’s hardly ideal, but neither is the reality that situations can change suddenly, as they already have this school year.

“One case can wipe out a whole team with quarantine,” Herl said. “That’s why protocols are so important.”