Lawrence school board finalizes its own COVID-19 guidance that focuses on incidence, positivity rates

photo by: Sylas May/Journal-World Illustration

The Lawrence school district now officially has its own coronavirus guidance, allowing for some of its gating criteria to carry more weight than others.

The school board on Monday finalized its version of the guidance by approving a method that uses the various pandemic-related gating criteria to make recommendations on how schools should operate.

Previously, the board had agreed to use the Kansas State Department of Education’s gating criteria, but it had not agreed on how to apply the criteria to come up with a recommendation. The KSDE’s criteria are incidence rates, which track the number of COVID-19 cases in a community over a certain period of time; the specific trends in the incidence rates; positivity rates, which measure the percentage of virus tests in the community that come back positive; rates of student absenteeism; and the surge capacity of the local hospital to respond to an outbreak.

Superintendent Anthony Lewis previously suggested an averaging system for the five criteria to create a recommendation, giving each of the criteria an equal 20% share of the average.

But school board member Shannon Kimball expressed concern about the reliability of the data used for the student absenteeism piece. She noted the district’s attendance data counts students as present when they are quarantining at home but still able to attend class virtually, which could give a false sense of security about how many students are affected by the virus.

The weighted system that the board approved gives more weight to the local incidence and positivity rates for the virus. Incidence rates and positivity rates will each weigh 30% toward the recommendation. Hospital surge capacity makes up 20% of the recommendation, the trend in the incidence rates makes up 15%, and absenteeism makes up 5%.

The system then uses this data to come up with a score that can be used to make a recommendation. According to the district’s website, a score from 1 to 1.5 is the green tier; 1.6 to 2.5 is the yellow tier; 2.6 to 3.5 is the orange tier; and 3.6 to 4 is the red tier.

Zachary Conrad, the district’s research and evaluation director, said current virus statistics result in a score of 2.2, which is in the yellow tier. The district’s yellow tier calls for hybrid in-person learning for grades six through 12 and allows fully in-person learning for pre-kindergarten through fifth grade.

The gating criteria and a data dashboard showing the recommendation are posted on the district’s website,

photo by: Webpage screenshot/USD 497

This screenshot shows the Lawrence school district’s recently approved coronavirus gating criteria and how a weighting system determines a recommendation for how school should be conducted as the pandemic continues. The data for Monday, Dec. 14, 2020, provides a 2.2 average score, recommending the district be in the yellow tier.

The board voted 6-1 to approve the weighting system, with Kimball voting against it. Kimball said she supported using the gating criteria and a weighting system, but she voted against it because of her continued concerns about the district’s absenteeism data.

“Our absenteeism data is simply not a reliable data point to include,” Kimball said. “I do not support using it as part of our criteria in our district because of those problems with the data.”

In other business, the board:

• Voted to update the 2020-21 school calendar to reflect a Kansas State Board of Education decision that lets districts subtract up to 20 hours of professional development for staff from the required classroom instruction time. The district will add professional development days for faculty on Jan. 5 and 6 and extend the students’ winter break until Jan. 7.

• Approved its 2021 legislative priorities. Among other things, the board is asking state lawmakers to consider a “hold harmless” provision for education funding, which would help schools that saw enrollment drops from seeing significant state funding shortfalls.

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