Local school districts further challenged as rise in COVID-19 numbers continues

Published: Nov. 4, 2020 at 5:59 PM CST
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WICHITA, Kan. (KWCH) - A positive percentage rate of about 18.8 percent for COVID-19 puts Sedgwick County at the highest percent-positive mark it’s reached since the start of the pandemic. With this, several local school districts are in the most restrict, “red zone” of their gating criteria, or could soon be in that category if the current trend continues.

UTW, the local teachers union, is advocating for Wichita schools to follow their gating criteria. Based on the latest data, that would indicate a move to remote learning. Last Friday (Oct. 30), the Wichita school board held a meeting in which it voted to move forward with plans to allow some middle and high-school students back in-person, starting Nov. 12, pushed back from the initially-planned start of next Monday (Nov. 9). The board will meet again next week and could make changes to the district’s current plan before older students would return to the classroom.

“We have a lot of teachers who are very worried. They’re very scared they’re going to catch the virus and take it home to a loved one, and that’s a lot of pressure, a lot of stress,” United Teachers of Wichita (UTW) President Kimberly Howard said.

Maize is one of several districts in the Wichita area within the red zone of its gating criteria and meeting this week to discuss learning options going forward in the face of the local spike in COVID-19 cases.

“We have to acknowledge that many cases we are seeing (have) no attachment to schools,” Sedgwick County Health Officer Dr. Garold Minns said.

With that, Dr. Minns said he does not believe that schools are a major spreader of COVID-19.

“We think we are seeing spread in group activities, wedding receptions, restaurants and other places people congregate,” he said. “Is school a potential place for transmission? Yes, but it’s not the only one nor is it a major one we can determine right now."

Tuesday night, the Andover school board voted to move middle-school students to in-person to hybrid learning due to the local rise in cases. Wednesday night, the Newton school board voted to move high school students to remote learning at least through the Thanksgiving break and for fifth-through-eighth-grade students to learn in a hybrid model, splitting time learning remotely and in-person. Those changes start next week.

“I think the schools are doing their best to try and identify people that might be infected and getting them switched over to remote,” Dr. Minns said. I’m certainly respectful of the great effort the students and staff have gone to try to suppress this virus in their schools."

For many area schools, the heightened positive percentage rate is one of the factors that could mean moving to remote learning for all grade levels. That’s a step Dr. Minns said should be considered if the current, upward trend continues.

With schools, Dr. Minns said he thinks more of the spread is coming from extracurricular activities because it’s more difficult to social distance and wear masks.

The concern with schools and COVID-19 isn’t just a Wichita area or Sedgwick County issue. There are similar trends across Kansas having similar impacts on educators.

“Across the board, administrators, teachers, classroom assistant, bus drivers, cafeteria workers, parents, we know this,” Kansas National Education Association Director of Communications Marcus Baltzell said.

The KNEA said in the long run, the best path forward is communication and training.

“Time, resources and tools. That’s what’s going to get us through this in the long haul,” Baltzell said.

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