Douglas County school virus guidance in yellow tier for 7th week, but health officials optimistic

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

The Lawrence-Douglas County Health Department announced Thursday its guidance to schools would remain in its yellow tier for a seventh-straight week.

Lawrence-Douglas County Public Health’s guidance for schools operating during the COVID-19 pandemic will remain constant for a seventh straight week.

The health department on Thursday announced the guidance would remain in the yellow tier, which recommends schools use hybrid learning options and prohibit “high-risk” athletic competitions and activities. The color-coded guidance is meant to help county school districts navigate reopening schools and conducting activities as the pandemic continues into the fall semester.

However, the key indicators that drive the guidance have again moved in the right direction and are close to reaching benchmarks that would allow for the department’s recommendation to return to its green tier, which is the lowest threat level.

According to the health department’s data released on Thursday, the average number of new cases in the county has fallen just below 14, which is down from the 17 reported last week, and the average positivity rate for the virus in the county has fallen to 5.8%, a drop from 7.3% last week.

“We will be keeping our Smart and Safe School Reopening Guidance in Phase Yellow for the next week, but we are optimistic about the recent trends, including today’s 14-day moving average of positivity rate at 5.8%,” said George Diepenbrock, a spokesman for the health department. “We are grateful for the community’s efforts to slow the spread of the coronavirus, including masking up and practicing social distancing.”

Additionally, the number of active cases of the virus have dropped. The health department reported a total of 298 active cases on Thursday, which is a drop of 113 from the 411 active cases last week.

The trends appear to indicate the health department’s guidance could soon move to the green tier, which would allow for in-person classes and all activities and athletics to continue as long as standard public health measures are taken.

In August, the guidance was in the green tier. But the health department upgraded to the yellow tier 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 September.

Since then, a decline in the average positivity rate and number of cases has generally continued but not enough to move back into the green tier.

But the schools in the county have all been operating under different circumstances. Last week, the Kansas Department of Health and Environment named Baldwin High School and Bishop Seabury Academy as virus outbreak locations, while Eudora recently closed an elementary building because of an outbreak among students there.

Baldwin City’s issues were borne out in the health department’s local infection rates last week, when it reported a 11.7% local positivity rate there. Baldwin Superintendent Paul Dorathy also said last week that the school district was facing a move to fully remote learning because of a shortage of substitute teachers for faculty who needed to quarantine.

But things have improved this week, as Baldwin City’s positivity rate has significantly declined from 11.7% to 4.6%. Elsewhere, the Lawrence and Lecompton positivity rates have also declined to 5.5% and 2.5%, respectively.

Meanwhile, Eudora’s local positivity rate has increased from 8.3% to 9.2%. The increase in Eudora comes after the school district recently increased the amount of days students are attending class in person. On Monday, the district moved from its original “AB/AB” hybrid learning option to a modified in-person schedule, having students attend classes in person four days a week, then attending remotely on Wednesdays.

However, it’s unclear if the increased rate in Eudora is related to the school district’s decision. Diepenbrock did not directly answer the Journal-World’s questions about Eudora’s positivity rate. Instead, he said the health department’s guidance is based on countywide data.

“Due to the interconnectedness of our community, Douglas County Education Unified Command leaders developed the Smart and Safe School Reopening Guidance and based the weekly phase recommendations on county-level data,” he said in an email. “Aside from the weekly guidance recommendation, LDCPH staff works daily with community members, including school leaders, to field questions and pass along the best guidance we have to help them work to prevent COVID-19 spread and if needed to respond and help manage levels of exposure,” he added.

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

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