Douglas County elevates school virus guidance to orange but recommends continued hybrid in-person learning

photo by: Lawrence-Douglas County Public Health

Lawrence-Douglas County Public Health on Thursday, Nov. 12, 2020, upgraded its virus guidance to schools to its orange tier. However, the health department changed the gating criteria for the guidance and has recommended schools continue using hybrid learning methods until the guidance reaches the red tier.

Story updated at 10:52 p.m. Thursday

While Douglas County continues to see increasing cases of COVID-19, the local health department is not recommending students return to fully remote learning.

Despite Lawrence-Douglas County Public Health’s guidance to schools upgrading to its orange tier for the first time on Thursday, officials said schools could continue to allow in-person instruction as long as they follow standard mitigation practices, such as wearing masks and physically distancing.

That is a departure from what the guidance has suggested for months. Under the original guidance, the orange tier recommended schools should return to fully remote learning to help slow the spread of the virus.

In light of the changes, during a special meeting with local health officials Thursday evening, the Lawrence school board chose to allow the district to continue using its hybrid learning model for at least another week and to reconsider the issue during another meeting on Nov. 19.

But, before making that decision, some board members expressed deep frustration with the health department about the changes to the guidance.

Board President Kelly Jones was clearly furious at one point during the meeting, suggesting she was blindsided by the updated criteria. She said the health officials — health department director Dan Partridge and Douglas County health officer Dr. Tom Marcellino — had told her just weeks ago that they stood by the criteria as it was originally written.

“I want to follow your direction and make sure kids are in schools but what you are saying contradicts what you told me weeks ago,” Jones said.

Changing guidance

The health department announced in its Thursday update that the county’s Unified Command Safety Team had reviewed the gating criteria for the guidance and concluded that students could continue safely attending in-person classes while in the orange tier.

“Based on risk assessment and the evolution of data, it is clear that K-12 schools can operate with reduced risks when certain mitigation practices are in place,” Marcellino said in the announcement. “This includes masks being used properly, proper social distancing, the following of cleaning guidelines, along with compliance with isolation and quarantine orders after contact tracing.”

Under the updated criteria, the health department recommends schools use fully remote learning only when the guidance reaches the red tier. The criteria shows the county would likely move into the red tier when the average positivity rate passes 15% and the average number of cases continues to increase. The criteria also includes schools taking into account their student absenteeism and their staff and faculty availability levels, meaning schools could choose to go to remote learning before reaching the red tier if many students and staff are out sick.

According to the health department’s data released on Thursday, the county is not far off from the red tier. The county’s average positivity rate has increased to 13.8%, and the average number of new cases has increased to 44, close to the county’s record of 46 cases in August.

While speaking with the board members, Marcellino said he understands the decision to change the criteria came at a particularly tough time. He said he felt comfortable with the guidance change because the original criteria was written without knowing whether schools could install health precautions effectively, which has so far been the case.

“What’s happened around the country, we’ve shown schools can successfully open if they do it the right way,” Marcellino said.

Lawrence to continue in hybrid

Despite their frustration, the board members eventually came to the decision to follow the health department’s new guidance for the time being. The move allows the district to continue in hybrid learning models, which it recently began using.

On Monday, Lawrence students throughout the district began using a hybrid learning method for the first time this fall. Unlike other school districts in the county, Lawrence started with six weeks of remote learning, then used a weeks-long transition period to move to hybrid learning. While the transition period was underway, the county’s average positivity rate and number of new cases for the virus were rapidly increasing.

The decision will likely not sit well with much of the district’s staff and faculty. Before the meeting, the unions for the teachers and paraeducators of the district both called for the board to follow the original gating criteria and move to remote learning. The paraeducators specifically pointed to communication from Superintendent Anthony Lewis, who said in October the district would move to remote learning if the guidance reached the orange tier.

Lewis acknowledged he made that comment and the fear faculty and staff feel. But he said that he believes things have changed since that statement, and he felt comfortable following the guidance from health experts.

Board member Shannon Kimball, who at times expressed deep frustration as well, acknowledged some parents in the community will be pleased with the board’s decision, but she also noted some parents and much of the district’s staff and faculty would be experiencing anger and grief.

“I have real fears that there is a level of trust that has been broken that is not easily repaired,” Kimball said. “I want to acknowledge that their feelings have been heard and we are going to take steps to repair that relationship, if that’s even possible at this point.”

Although the hybrid method will continue, the district could still change in the near future. Partridge noted the community’s increasing issue with COVID-19 could push the guidance to red next week, which would then recommend for schools to return to remote. Jones said meeting again on Nov. 19 would give the board and community a chance to consider the possibility and make a change if needed.

Area schools

It appears that the Baldwin City school district will remain in hybrid as well. The district said in a Thursday social media post that the updating gating criteria meant the district would move to remote learning only when the guidance is in the red tier.

Superintendent Paul Dorathy did not respond to the Journal-World’s request for comment Thursday.

However, some schools serving Douglas County students will be moving to remote learning next week.

Officials for Eudora and Perry-Lecompton school districts announced this week that some of their students would move to remote learning, with Eudora High School beginning Wednesday and Perry-Lecompton students in seventh grade and up beginning on Monday. Both districts said those students would stay in that method of learning through Nov. 24, which is the last day before their Thanksgiving breaks. The earliest those students could move back to a form of in-person learning is Nov. 30.

According to the health department’s data, both Eudora and Lecompton have very high local positivity rates. Eudora’s has increased to 21.2% and Lecompton’s has increased to 22.1%. But the health department’s guidance now allows for the rest of their students to continue learning in person, for the time being.

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.

Contact Dylan Lysen

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