Health guidelines now allow students to test out of quarantine; school board approves budget, staff retention bonus plan

photo by: Dylan Lysen/Lawrence Journal-World

Lawrence Public Schools district offices pictured in April 2021.

Lawrence students may soon be able to sidestep a portion of quarantine orders if they can prove they tested negative for the coronavirus.

Superintendent Anthony Lewis announced recent changes to local COVID-19 guidance during the school board meeting on Monday. However, the district has not yet made a decision to follow them.

Lewis said the updated guidance from the Lawrence-Douglas County Health Department now allows students who are deemed a close contact to a positive case of the virus to “test out” of the quarantine. They can do so by providing a negative PCR test that is taken six days after exposure. They would then be able to return to in-person learning on the eighth day after the exposure, rather than waiting a full 10-day quarantine period.

Whether the district will follow that guidance has not yet been determined. District Spokeswoman Julie Boyle told the Journal-World after the meeting the district is still discussing the possibility.

Previously, students could not test out of quarantine orders, Lewis said. As the Journal-World recently reported, about 400 students were being asked to quarantine at one point because of close contact with positive cases.

Additionally, Lewis said the district launched a dashboard for the number of reported cases for the virus in the district and how many students and staff are being asked to quarantine.

In the most recent report, the dashboard showed a total of 57 positive cases among the district, with a majority coming from elementary schools. It also showed 309 students and staff members were asked to quarantine, again with most coming from elementary schools.

Lewis said the dashboard can be found on the district’s website, He said the dashboard will be updated on Wednesdays.

Board approves 2021-22 budget and staff retention bonus plan

In other business, the board approved its 2021-22 school year budget. The budget authorized about $201.4 million in net expenditures for the year, while reducing the school district property tax rate by 0.242 of a mill. For the owners of homes valued at $200,000, the property tax rate decrease would equate to a reduction of about $5.50 in their annual property taxes.

Additionally, the budget includes a $110 million spending authority in the district’s general fund. However, Finance Director Kathy Johnson previously told the board that the authorized spending is higher than expected to allow the district to use any unexpected funds it receives throughout the school year.

But the district doesn’t expect to be able to spend that much. Instead, Johnson said the district plans for the district to spend about $107.7 million from its general fund during the 2021-22 school year. That’s a decrease of about $1.5 million from the district’s planned spending from the general fund during the 2020-21 school year, when the district approved spending $109.2 million.

The board also approved a retention bonus plan that aims to slow turnover among the district’s staff.

The plan allows teachers and other school employees to receive $1,500 in bonuses over the next school year, then again in the 2022-2023 school year, if they remain employed by the district. About 1,700 employees could be eligible for the bonus.

The $5.3 million plan will be funded by some of the district’s allotment of pandemic relief funding. Lewis told the board the plan was necessary to help retain staff in the district, which has been difficult during the pandemic.

“We know COVID-19 has significantly impacted us from a staffing standpoint and our ability to retain staff,” Lewis said. “Retention of staff plays a huge and important role in student success.”

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