Lawrence school board adopts COVID-19 guidance criteria; county health department’s guidance remains in orange tier

photo by: Sylas May/Journal-World Illustration

The Lawrence school board on Thursday formally adopted criteria for guidance on how to conduct school amid the coronavirus pandemic, adding more criteria to consider than local health officials have previously.

The board’s criteria is based on the Kansas State Department of Education’s guidance and includes reviewing incidence rates for COVID-19 within the community and the local hospital capacity for responding to outbreaks.

However, late in their consideration of approval of the guidance, the board chose to move forward with KSDE’s criteria but also directed district administration to work with local health officials to determine a methodology on how the criteria makes a recommendation.

During a special meeting Thursday, the board voted 5-1 to adopt the criteria with those changes. Board members Kelly Jones, Carole Cadue-Blackwood, Erica Hill, G.R. Gordon-Ross and Paula Smith voted to approve it. Shannon Kimball voted against, while Melissa Johnson was absent from the meeting.

The board recently chose to consider formally adopting guidance after the health department last month made changes to the recommendations its guidance makes. The changes, which frustrated some board members, allowed schools to continue using hybrid in-person learning methods when the guidance reached the orange tier. Originally the orange tier called for schools to use remote learning methods.

The board voted 4-3 to not adopt the health department’s guidance during its Nov. 23 meeting. With that version failing to be adopted, the board directed the district administrators to work on a new version.

During the meeting Thursday, the board considered two alternative options. The first option was KSDE’s virus guidance. That version includes using five different criteria, including local incidence rates of the virus and the local hospital capacity as criteria, which Kimball has been asking the district to consider for months.

The district would collect data for all of the criteria, then use an averaging system to determine where the guidance lands on KSDE’s color-coded recommendation.

Superintendent Anthony Lewis showed the board that the data currently places the district in the guidance’s yellow tier, which allows for hybrid in-person learning for middle school and high school students and then hybrid or fully in-person learning for pre-K through fifth grade.

The second alternative option included using the local health department’s guidance, but adding incidence rates to the criteria. The board voted on it, but it failed with a 3-3 vote.

Additionally, the board approved the local health department’s guidance for athletics, which includes allowing “high risk” sports to continue when they are modified, such as requiring athletes to wear masks. They also authorized for band, choir and cheer to continue with its current mitigation measures.

The modifiable sports includes wrestling, which health officials previously said they did not believe could be modified. But Lewis told the board that guidance had changed, and wrestling is now considered modifiable if athletes wear masks.

The board voted 4-2, with Jones, Hill, Gordon-Ross and Smith approving it. Kimball and Cadue-Blackwood voted against it.

Kimball said she voted against it because she doesn’t believe wrestling can be done safely.

Health department’s guidance remains in orange tier

Meanwhile, the health department announced Thursday afternoon its guidance to schools would remain in the orange tier for another week. The orange tier recommends schools use hybrid in-person learning methods.

But key indicators for the guidance are heading in a good direction. According to the health department’s data on Thursday, the average positivity rate has fallen 5.8% and the average number of new cases has fallen to 57.

The positivity rate has fallen below the 10% threshold that would suggest moving the guidance to the yellow tier, which calls either using hybrid or fully in-person learning. However, health department director Dan Partridge said the guidance remained in the orange tier because the county currently has more than 1,000 active cases for the virus.

“Our 14-day moving average of new cases per day has come down from the recent spike, but our number of active cases in the community is still high,” Partridge said in the announcement. “We encourage everyone to stay vigilant with public health practices, including masking up and social distancing, as we hope these trends continue in the right direction, including trying to reduce the number of active cases.”

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