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Metro Kansas City Schools Won't Be Able To Open In September If Cases Don't Start Going Down

Shawnee Mission and other districts have delayed the first day of school until Sept. 8. Now new cases need to decline for public health officials to sign off on reopening.
KCUR file photo
Shawnee Mission and other districts have delayed the first day of school until Sept. 8. Now new cases need to decline for public health officials to sign off on reopening, or the school year will have to start online.

Public health officials say a return to in-person learning will only be safe when fewer people are testing positive for COVID-19. Right now, cases are spiking in Kansas and Missouri.

Kansas City families who want their kids to return to school this fall should wear masks, practice social distancing and limit interaction with non-household members, health authorities say.

If they don’t, it’s likely the worsening pandemic will keep school buildings closed for months.

On Tuesday, the Johnson County, Kansas, Health Department released what’s known as “gating criteria” – rules for when and how schools should reopen. Per the guidelines, schools in Johnson County shouldn’t fully reopen until less than 5% of coronavirus tests are positive with a steady or declining number of new cases.

Johnson County reported 48 new cases on Tuesday. On Wednesday, there were another 131. Over the past two weeks, nearly 10% of tests have come back positive.

Right now Johnson County is operating in the “yellow” – if schools opened tomorrow, elementary students could be in classrooms five days a week, but not middle and high school students.

“Hybrid operations should limit the number of people in the building/in all spaces to allow for stable (unchanging) groups and social distancing; reduce crowding of any kind with staggered arrival/dismissal/class rotations. Hours inside the building may be reduced and supplemented with remote learning,” according to the gating criteria.

There can be no all-school activities. No high risk activities. No group travel. Sports conditioning can continue with appropriate modifications, such as keeping athletes six feet apart.

Districts can enact their own, more stringent rules. On Wednesday, Shawnee Mission School Board President Heather Ousley posted on Facebook that if older students are in a hybrid learning model, younger students will be as well. Ousley and the other board members voted Monday to push the start of school back to Sept. 8 to give local conditions more time to improve.

But that won’t happen if coronavirus cases continue to climb in Kansas and Missouri.

On Tuesday, the biggest school district on the Missouri side, North Kansas City, announced it wouldn’t reopen schools until after Labor Day. Students at Crestview and Winwood, the district’s two year-round schools, will attend through the end of the week, then head home for at least a month.

Meanwhile, rumors about positive cases from summer school have flown on social media.

Privacy concerns

The Family Educational Rights and Privacy Act, more commonly known as FERPA, doesn’t prevent schools from telling parents that a specific teacher or student has tested positive for the coronavirus, per U.S. Department of Education guidance issued back in March.

The Health Insurance Portability and Accountability Act, or HIPAA, protects patient privacy, but it doesn’t typically apply to schools.

North Kansas City Superintendent Dan Clemens addressed those concerns at Tuesday’s school board meeting.

“If I report any type of COVID cases, because the numbers are so low in Clay County and particularly within this school district, I would be imposing on the privacy rights of individuals within our community,” Clemens said. “So I just want to be very careful.”

Clemens added that he knows other schools and districts are reporting that information, but he was advised by local health officials that if there are only one or two cases in a building, then they would be identifiable.

Every district is grappling with when and how to tell parents when students or staff test positive for COVID-19. Many are deferring to local health officials.

Lee’s Summit Superintendent David Buck wrote in a memo to teachers that 900 students participated in athletic programs over the summer, only one of which was shut down “due to numerous cases.”

But the health department did not instruct the district to notify any individuals “as they deemed everyone else to be little to no risk,” Buck wrote.

If schools can open for face-to-face learning this fall, however, the number of individuals in close contact with each other will only increase. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention defines “close contact” as within six feet of an infected person for at least 15 minutes, starting two days before illness onset.

As teachers have been quick to point out, most classrooms aren’t big enough to space 25 or 30 students six feet apart.

Some districts have taken that into account in their re-entry plans. The Kansas City Public Schools, for instance, will quarantine entire classes if more than 5% of students test positive on any given day. In a small class, that’s just one or two students.

District spokeswoman Kelly Wachel said there was a period when KCPS was confident that it could reopen buildings safely this fall. The district has since announced that the start of school, after Labor Day, will be virtual for all students, even families who would prefer to learn in-person learning.

“The in-person environment is not only preferable, it’s better for our students to have that in-person connection with a caring, trusted adult,” Wachel told KCUR. “But we’re watching the data, looking at our area specifically here in Kansas City skyrocket with cases.”

Elle Moxley covered education for KCUR.
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