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Even As Students Head Back To School In Independence, Reopening Debate Rages

Carlos Moreno
KCUR 89.3
The Westside Community Action Network distributed backpacks and school supplies to families last week. After months of debate about whether it's safe to reopen schools, some Kansas City area students are headed back to school in person this week. Others will start the school year virtually.

Students in some Kansas City area districts are headed back to school this week for the first time since March.

Independence’s plan to bring back middle and high school students in schools for face-to-face learning goes against a recommendation from the Jackson County Health Department to have older students start virtually this fall.

“I certainly understand people’s trepidation about starting,” Superintendent Dale Herl said in a phone interview. “I have my own two kids that are going to be in-person, and my wife works for the school district. If I thought at any moment that we couldn’t do this safely and they would be in harm’s way, there’s absolutely no chance I would put them at risk.”

A spokeswoman for the district said it should be possible to practice social distancing in classrooms, with nearly 30% of families opting for online school, and middle and high schoolers attending on alternating days.. Herl said he had received about 100 emails this week in support of reopening.

But teachers in other districts are speaking out for Independence teachers afraid of retaliation.

“We believe in science. We believe in evidence," said Andrew Rexroat, who teaches fifth grade in the Kansas City Public Schools. "That’s what makes us great educators – we use evidence-based practices in our classrooms. The evidence says that opening in person can hurt your students."

KCPS is starting the school virtually, a decision Rexroat said made him feel valued as an educator. He’s part of Missourians for Educational Change, a statewide coalition that wrote a school re-entry plan that calls for online learning until there isn’t significant spread of the coronavirus.

“The teachers that are really pushing back on in-person learning aren’t doing so because they’re selfish,” Rexroat said. “They’re concerned with their own health, for sure. But they’re also deeply concerned about students and their families. This is a deadly disease.”

Essential workers

On both sides of the state line, local health officials are urging school superintendents to reconsider bringing students back for in-person learning.

Those recommendations have angered some parents. Last week, Blue Valley parents asked the school board to ignore advice from the health department so their kids could play sports.

Ultimately, the school board decided that cross country, football, volleyball, soccer, marching band and other activities were all too risky, though elementary school students in Blue Valley will be able to go to school every other day.

Now the same push back is playing out in Lee’s Summit, where the school board is expected to make its decision on Tuesday.

Carlos Moreno
KCUR 89.3
Lee's Summit parents who want schools to reopen for in-person learning next month rallied outside the district administrative office last week. The school board's final decision on the first day of school is expected Tuesday.

Matt Rhodus, the parent of four Lee’s Summit students, participated in a rally to reopen schools last week. He said that the school board is acting like education isn’t essential.

“We’ve had a list since the very beginning, the day that we started locking everything down, of essential workers who have to be out there. I was given a piece of paper that said I was essential. I’m a factory worker,” said Rhodus, who is married to a child care provider that has also continued to work during the pandemic. “How were teachers – educators of our future leaders and workers – how were they not essential?”

Of course, educators in Lee’s Summit and across the country continued to teach remotely when schools closed in the spring. But in the days since Rhodus and other Lee’s Summit parents rallied to reopen schools, the Trump administration has said teachers should be considered “critical infrastructure workers,” as doctors and nurses are.

That clears the way for teachers to continue working even after a COVID-19 exposure, so long as they remain asymptomatic.

Most districts that are offering virtual learning let teachers choose whether to be online or in-person this fall. But in some districts, there were more applicants than there were online jobs. Other districts told teachers they might not be able to return to their home school after the pandemic.

Teachers in Blue Valley are worried that if the school board caves to parent pressure to reopen schools, they’ll be forced into an unsafe situation with financial penalties if they resign.

Superintendent Herl said Independence has created both short- and long-term leave options for teachers not comfortable returning to the classroom, but only 13 employees had chosen to take a sabbatical.

Herl said there are far more workers who are eager for schools to reopen, including support staff.

“I’m responsible for the livelihood of 2,600 individuals and their families,” he said. “And without a doubt, if schools go virtual, there are some positions that are not conducive for virtual education.”

Community spread

Both the American Academy of Pediatrics and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention recommend in-person learning for kids this fall, with an important caveat: classrooms must be safe for students and staff.

“AAP recommends in-person except for when you have significant community spread. CDC uses a slightly different term, ‘significant community transmission,’” Lee’s Summit Superintendent David Buck said at a school board meeting last week. “CDC even says that will be determined by your local health department.”

“A lot of our email communication that we’ve received is we should just ignore the Jackson County Health Department and kind of do whatever we want to,” board member Judy Hedrick said.

Hedrick said she thought the district should listen to public health experts, but she wanted to understand what criteria they were actually using to make their recommendation.

Buck replied that the health department is looking at several factors besides the 14-day average of positive coronavirus tests, which on Friday was 14.85%. He said that in his conversations with public health officials, they’ve also stressed the number of teen cases – and subsequent contract tracing linking those cases to large gatherings.

Lee's Summit R-7 School District
Lee's Summit Superintendent David Buck visits a summer school classroom. Buck, who is in his first year with the district, was initially optimistic that schools would be able to reopen for in-person learning this fall. Now the Jackson County Health Department is recommending a virtual start for all students.

Most public health experts agree that older children and teens spread the virus as effectively as adults, which is why so many middle and high school students have been told to start the school year virtually.

There’s new evidence that younger children may carry higher viral loads even though they tend to have less severe disease.

In other places where schools have reopened, students have had to quarantine almost immediately. According to the White House Coronavirus Task Force, Georgia had the highest rate of new coronavirus infections the week most schools opened. Some districts opened schools only to have to close them days later. Photos of unmasked students in overcrowded hallways circulated on social media despite administrators’ best efforts to quash them.

Locally, entire teams have had to quarantine after a few players tested positive for the coronavirus, most notably Blue Valley West football.

Safety first

Rexroat, the KCPS teacher, spent his Saturday protesting the reopening of Independence schools. Herl and other Independence administrators characterized these protests as small and led by outsiders.

But Rexroat said he’s only doing it because the Independence teachers who worked with him on Missourians for Educational Change’s re-entry plan fear reprisal.

“The issue is, people who feel like they need to make sure they’re protecting their community from COVID are fearful to protest in person,” Rexroat said. “So it’s really hard to show how many people actually want to open online or have more evidence-based school re-entry when the other side has zero fear of showing up in-person because they think COVID is a hoax.”

Three Independence teachers with concerns about going back to school on Monday also contacted KCUR. KCUR was able to verify that all three teach in the district, but none of them would agree to speak on the record. They all had similar concerns, including that teachers don’t have access to medical-grade personal protective equipment, like coronavirus-filtering N-95 masks.

“We did not sign up to work with infected people,” Rexroat said. “We did not sign up to work in medicine. So when medical professionals post on social media and say, ‘Oh, it’s OK, we were scared, too, but we learned,’ it’s like, well, you have medical training. We wanted to be teachers, not nurses or doctors.”

But Superintendent Herl thinks such concerns are overblown. He said the district didn’t have any coronavirus cases during the summer school session, and he thinks schools can operate safely this fall.

“If you look at all of the research, certainly educationally, it is much more sound to go in-person,” he said. “We focused on choices for our parents. If they’re comfortable sending their children, we’re certainly going to educate them. But if they want to go virtual, we’re allowing that as well.”

Carlos Moreno and Greg Echlin contributed to this report.

Elle Moxley covered education for KCUR.
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