Health department’s education guidance remains in yellow phase for third straight week; Lawrence district still allowing sports

photo by: Webpage screenshot/Lawrence-Douglas County Health Department

The Lawrence-Douglas County Health Department's guidance to county schools remains in its yellow phase for a third straight week.

Story updated at 5:43 p.m. Thursday, Sept. 10:

For a third straight week, Lawrence Douglas-County Public Health has kept its education guidance in its yellow tier, which calls for schools to use hybrid learning options and prohibit “high risk” sports such as soccer and football.

Despite the department’s recommendation, the Lawrence school district said Thursday it would continue to allow all sports to compete for the time being.

Lawrence-Douglas County Public Health’s color-coded schools guidance is meant to help county school districts navigate reopening schools and conducting activities as the coronavirus pandemic continues into the fall semester. George Diepenbrock, a spokesman for the health department, said Thursday the guidance was staying in the yellow tier because the county’s COVID-19 infection rate had risen to 9.7%. The education guidance specifies that the county is in the yellow tier when the countywide infection rate is more than 5% but less than 10%.

If the infection rate passes the 10% mark, the county could move its guidance to its orange tier, which calls for fully remote learning and prohibiting all sports and activities.

“With a positivity rate of 9.7%, it is a critical time for our community and for everyone to practice smart and safe habits,” Diepenbrock said.

However, the health department’s data this week also showed that the 14-day moving average for new cases per day has continued to fall. As of Thursday, the average of new cases per day over the past 14 days was around 24, which is a steep decline from the high 30s and low 40s in recent weeks.

Unlike last week, the health department did not initially provide infection rate information related to specific communities in the county on Thursday. Diepenbrock said that the health department would provide that information to districts if they asked for it, but that it was not pertinent to how the department makes its recommendation for the entire county.

“After examining our processes related to school guideline information in the past week, we decided to simplify the information as it pertains to the recommendations, and we believe the data show it is critical for everyone in Douglas County, no matter where they live, to practice smart and safe habits to prevent the spread of the coronavirus,” Diepenbrock said. “Our response must recognize the interconnectedness of our approaches to contain the spread of the coronavirus.”

However, the department added the information to its guidance website after the Journal-World requested it, showing Lawrence with a 9.9% local infection rate, Eudora with 8%, Lecompton with 6.2% and Baldwin City with 5.5%.

This week will be the third week that the guidance has been in the yellow tier. In August, the guidance was in the green tier, which is the lowest threat level, allowing for in-person classes and all activities and athletics to continue as long as standard public health measures are taken.

The health department upgraded its recommendation to yellow on Aug. 27 after seeing a spike in average new cases per day, which was largely due to the University of Kansas’ testing of students and faculty. At its peak, the 14-day average of new cases per day reached up to the low 40s, but it began to decline at the beginning of the month.

The health department’s up-to-date school guidance can be found on its website, Department officials said the guidance would be updated each Thursday.

USD 497 allows all athletics and activities to continue

After the health department updated its recommendation, Lawrence school district spokeswoman Julie Boyle told the Journal-World in an email the district would allow all sports and activities to continue. She said the district would reevaluate the situation again next week.

“We are concerned with the test positivity rate and urge members of our school community to continue wearing masks, social distancing, washing hands, covering coughs and sneezes, and staying home when sick,” Boyle said in an email.

The district previously said on Aug. 28 that it would allow high risk sports to continue to compete while in the yellow tier, but it would reevaluate after two weeks. During that time, football and soccer programs began playing. Additionally, a Free State High School football team member recently tested positive for the virus, and more than 30 other players and a coach have been put under quarantine through Sept. 17 as a result, the Journal-World has reported.

Boyle said earlier this week the Free State football team did not believe the case would affect its varsity schedule. However, Free State’s football opponent for this week backed out on Wednesday, and the school announced Thursday that it wasn’t able to find a replacement.

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