Reopening guidelines announced for county’s K-12 schools; county is in the green zone but school boards still have key decisions to make

photo by: Sylas May/Journal-World Illustration

Updated at 5:25 p.m. Thursday

Douglas County schools could be in line to host full in-person classes and competitive sports this fall. COVID-19 numbers in Douglas County currently are low enough that the county is ranked in the lowest of risk categories — the green level — local health officials have announced.

But numbers and color codes aside, what school ultimately will end up looking like still depends on how local school boards view the issue and how closely they want to follow guidance provided by health officials, several leaders told the Journal-World Tuesday.

On Monday, the Education Unified Command released its guidance on how to reopen schools and conduct athletics and activities this fall as the coronavirus pandemic continues. Under the guidance, schools are recommended to follow a four-tier system that outlines the recommendations in relation to local COVID-19 infection rates.

However, while the Education Unified Command is working with all of the schools in the county, Douglas County Health Officer Dr. Thomas Marcellino told the Journal-World the guidance is only a recommendation, and each district’s school board can follow it as it sees fit.

“These are recommendations that have been given to the school boards,” Marcellino said. “This is for the schools to use as a tool.”

The recommendations are based in part on the percentage of COVID-19 tests that have come back positive in the county over a period of two weeks. Specifically, the guidance states that schools should be remote-only with no extracurricular activities or sports if the percentage of positive tests is above 10%. When the local positive test rate is lower than 5%, schools can begin hosting fully in-person classes or continue with a hybrid in-person and remote model, which decreases the amount of students in school buildings at one time.

As of Tuesday afternoon, the positive test rate for the past 14 days was slightly less than 4%, according to the health department. That means schools could begin with fully in-person classes and conduct athletic activities, as long as standard health and safety precautions — like wearing a mask and socially distancing — are taken, Marcellino said.

But if the rate increases to more than 5% — as it was at the beginning of the month — the recommendations call for schools to conduct classes through the hybrid option, which is a mix of in-person and online learning. It also allows for sports practices to continue but recommends barring games for some “high-risk” sports, which would include football and soccer.

The four-tier system

photo by: Education Unified Command

This table provides a brief explanation of the guidance the Education Unified Command provided to Douglas County school districts.

The guidance from the Education Unified Command is laid out in four color-coded tiers — green, yellow, orange and red.

For all intents and purposes, orange and red are effectively the same. The red tier, which identifies when the local COVID-19 positive test rate for the past two weeks is above 15%, recommends that school be conducted fully online and all extracurricular activities be canceled.

The orange tier, which identifies local rates between 10% and 15%, recommends the same guidance. However, the orange tier aims to provide an understanding that the spread of the virus is stable or declining.

The green and yellow tiers are where schools will need to make the most decisions regarding classes and activities.

The yellow tier, which identifies local rates between 5% and 10%, recommends classes be held through hybrid learning options. The hybrid learning options explored by Douglas County schools have included splitting a school building’s population into two groups and having the groups separately attend in-person classes two-days a week. The other three days of the week would be spent learning online, with one day having all students attend remotely.

The yellow tier also includes specific guidance on athletics and activities. At the elementary level, the guidance recommends no all-school activities, but allowing activities in limited groups. At the high school and middle school levels, modified practices and conditioning would be allowed, but certain “high-risk” activities would not.

The guidance defines high-risk activities as “sports that involve close, sustained contact between participants, lack of significant protective barriers, and high probability that respiratory particles will be transmitted between participants.” Examples include football and soccer and activities such as band, choir and cheerleading.

That means if Douglas County is in the yellow tier, the guidance recommends football and soccer games should not be played. However, other competitions — such as those of noncontact sports golf, tennis and cross country — would be allowed.

But in the green tier, which Douglas County is currently in, the recommendations allow for all in-person classes and sports competitions to continue, as long as the standard health precautions are taken.

Additionally, for both the yellow and green tiers, the guidance advises all activities to use limited attendance. It also recommends that spectators maintain social distance and wear masks while indoors or within 10 feet of others.

Marcellino said continuing to use those precautions — wearing masks and socially distancing — will be important to helping make sure school can be held in person and athletic events can continue.

“The more we utilize those measures, the better chance we have (of) staying in green,” he said.

People don’t have to look far to see how the virus can threaten school plans. Johnson County’s health department on Tuesday announced the county is still in the red zone with a positive test rate of more than 11%. That health department is recommending that Johnson County schools start the year in remote-only mode.

The Douglas County guidance also recommends schools monitor absence rates among their student populations, with recommendations of less than 3% absent for green, less than 6% for yellow, less than 10% for orange and anything over 10% for red. Districts also are asked to consider whether the number of new COVID-19 cases per day is declining, steady, or increasing when they make their decisions.

A breakdown of the guidance and the county’s most up-to-date recommendations can be found on the Lawrence-Douglas County Health Department website,

How will schools follow the guidance?

With the guidance serving as a recommendation, each Douglas County school district will need to make its own decision on how to follow it.

For instance, if the local positive test rate rises past 5%, schools will need to decide if they will allow a football game to be played.

When asked about this possibility, Lawrence school district spokeswoman Julie Boyle noted that Superintendent Anthony Lewis helped craft the guidance, but she did not say whether the school district would allow football games if Douglas County were in the yellow tier. Instead, she said the Lawrence school board would discuss the guidance during its next meeting.

“The school board meets Monday and will have its first opportunity as a group to discuss it and any potential implications for our programs then,” Boyle said.

As for the education piece, there is no indication that the Lawrence school district will alter its plans to start the school year with six weeks of remote-only learning. While the current numbers show Douglas County is about 6 percentage points below the level where health officials say remote learning is the best option, those numbers weren’t available when school board members made the decision in July. The board ultimately decided to begin the school year on Sept. 8 with at least six weeks of fully remote learning.

Some board members said at the time they made that decision early to provide clarity to faculty, staff and students, rather than waiting until September to make a decision. In the meantime, the school district has created a task force to craft a back-to-school plan, which includes installing a hybrid learning option, that will likely be considered in October.

As for Eudora and Baldwin City, it is unclear whether the new guidance will lead to changes to their plans to open the school year.

Mark Dodge, a spokesperson for the Eudora school district, said the new guidance would be a topic of conversation for Eudora’s next school board meeting. While Eudora has crafted a hybrid learning option, it has not decided yet on how it will start school. Dodge previously told the Journal-World the school district would make a decision closer to when the school year starts in September “while following the direction and guidance of the Lawrence-Douglas County Health Department.”

Meanwhile, Baldwin City Superintendent Paul Dorathy did not respond to the Journal-World’s request for comment. He previously said Baldwin City was planning for pre-K through sixth grade classes to be on-site daily in “self-contained cohorts,” and grades 7 through 12 to attend through a hybrid option.

Perry-Lecompton is slated to begin today, and will start the school year with its hybrid option, according to the school district’s website.

County versus local rates

Another issue schools may consider is whether an outbreak at one school district will affect the education and activity plans of another.

In the four-tier guidance, the positive test rates used to inform which tier schools are in comes from cases throughout the county. So an outbreak contained in Lawrence could increase the rate for the whole county, and would put all of the schools in a certain tier.

George Diepenbrock, spokesperson for Lawrence-Douglas County Public Health, said the Education Unified Command chose to use a countywide infection rate because it believes the county is an interconnected community. But he noted some school leaders have asked for rates specific to their communities, and the health department will provide that information to them.

Another group that could influence the county rate is the University of Kansas’ faculty, staff and students, who are expected to begin their fall semester on campus next week. While KU is testing its community through a private health lab, Diepenbrock said the health department is working to include the university’s tests as part of the county’s overall rate. He said the health department asks the community to be prepared for the rate to increase as people, including college students, return to Douglas County this fall.

“The most important thing will be our ability to isolate individuals who do test positive while they are infectious to keep it from spreading further,” Diepenbrock said. “This is what we have been planning and preparing for, and we also continue to ask everyone in our community to practice smart and safe habits, including wearing a mask, practice social distancing, practice good hygiene and stay home if you do feel sick.”

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