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Parents Pressure Blue Valley School Board To Ignore Health Department Guidelines So Sports Can Continue

Ireland Summers
U.S. Air Force
Many student athletes also participate in club sports, which have practiced all summer. But across the country there have been coronavirus cases linked back to camps and tournaments.

Sports have become a rallying cry for families who want schools to reopen. Athletics are important for kids' mental and physical health, but playing them in the middle of a pandemic is risky.

Parents and student athletes are pushing back against health department recommendations to keep school buildings closed while the coronavirus spreads uncontrolled in the Kansas City area.

“High school sports, and sports in general, are the cornerstone and foundation for some students’ sole will and purpose to receive a high school education,” said Ethan Hunt, a rising senior who plays soccer at Blue Valley Northwest, at a special school board meeting Tuesday night.

“Through sports, student athletes can learn lifelong, valuable lessons, create ever-lasting relationships with teammates and develop a competitive spirit through hard work, determination and a drive to succeed.”

After 90 minutes of public testimony, the Blue Valley school board agreed to disregard school reopening guidelines from the Johnson County Department of Health and Environment that would’ve halted sports practices at the end of the week. Known as “gating criteria,” Blue Valley and the five other Johnson County school districts had helped write the rules.

Earlier Tuesday, health department director Sanmi Areola met with all six school superintendents to recommend that middle and high school students start the school year remotely and that all extracurricular activities be online-only.

Elementary students could still attend, Areola said, but he wanted the superintendents to know that pandemic conditions were worsening in Johnson County.

“We saw that in New York, Florida, Texas and Arizona, once you see you have these spikes in cases, eventually you’re going to have your resources overwhelmed,” Areola told KCUR.

Blue Valley School District
Blue Valley students participate in social distancing during an outdoor graduation ceremony last month. The director of the Johnson County Department of Health and Environment, Sanmi Areola, said that graduation celebrations and parties likely contributed to community spread of the coronavirus.

Within a few hours of Tuesday’s meeting with Areola, the Shawnee Mission and USD 232 school districts announced that all of their students would start remotely, not just middle and high schoolers.

“Please know that this is not the outcome that any of us hoped for when we began planning for the opening of schools this past spring,” Shawnee Mission Superintendent Mike Fulton wrote in an email to parents. “We miss our students and can’t wait to be back together with them.”

All Shawnee Mission sports and activities will be suspended as of Friday, Aug. 21.

But around the time Shawnee Mission parents got that email from Fulton, some Blue Valley parents were gathering outside a special school board meeting with signs urging, “Let us play!”

Jim Muehlberger, the parent of a Blue Valley Northwest student, said that his son and thousands of other youth athletes had played club sports all summer without getting sick. He also objected to the use of Johnson County coronavirus data in making school decisions since it includes clusters present in nursing homes.

“We are allowing symptomatic or sick 70-year-olds to determine whether these 17-year-olds should be allowed to go outside,” Muehlberger said.

While it’s true that children with COVID-19 tend to have less serious symptoms than adults, new research suggests that they may also have higher viral loads, increasing the risk of exposure for teachers, coaches and parents.

“Children can spread the virus effectively in households and camp settings,” according to the latest guidance from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention published last week.

Chris Jenson, an emergency room doctor turned high school science teacher, recapped those findings at the start of Tuesday’s school board meeting.

“So they sent this information out and say, ‘Hey, there are some limitations to this study, but we’re a little nervous because we’re finding greater amounts of virus inside these kiddos’ noses than we expected,’” said Jenson, who has been helping Blue Valley coordinate their pandemic response.

“But this is not a surprising finding because anyone who’s a mom or dad knows as soon as your kiddo gets whatever thing has blessed them to become a snot rocket, the whole house comes down with it soon.”

Still, the parents who made their appeals clung to an early July statement from the American Academy of Pediatrics urging schools to reopen, even though AAP and other medical groups walked back that recommendation a week later as cases started to surge.

The number of parents nationally who want in-person school this fall has also decreased. In May and early June, 56% of the parents Gallup surveyed wanted to send their kids back. By late July, just 36% of U.S. parents still favored in-person instruction.

Locally, upwards of 75% of families have said their preference would be to learn in-person. But in the hours after Blue Valley rejected the Johnson County health department recommendations, parents and teachers posted in Facebook groups that they would not have picked in-person if they knew the district was going to reject medical advice.

The Blue Valley school board is supposed to meet again Friday. They could adopt the gating criteria the Kansas State Board of Education set last week, which includes more data points than the Johnson County guidelines, including hospital capacity and school attendance.

But applying the state’s matrix to pandemic conditions in Johnson County might not provide a clear path forward, either.

If Blue Valley made its decision based on the percent positive rate or the two-week county incident rate, sports and activities would still be canceled.

But if Blue Valley instead pinned reopening to hospital capacity, all students could start the school year in-person.

Areola said that would be a bad idea because the people who get infected today might not be hospitalized for weeks. That’s what happened in New York City early on, and it’s happening now in other hot spots.

Over the weekend, Deborah Birx, the Trump administration’s coronavirus coordinator, visited Kansas, warning that mask wearing and social distancing were the best way to stop the coming surge.

She also said that if Kansas Citians didn’t take precautions now, it wouldn’t be safe to have spectators at Chiefs games or other sporting events this fall.

The return of professional sports, as well as club sports teams that played this summer, are often cited by return-to-school advocates as reasons why high school athletics are safe. But lots of players are testing positive as practices resume.

Still, sports have become the rallying cry for parents with very real concerns about their kids’ mental health during a pandemic with no end in sight. On Wednesday evening, proponents of reopening schools are expected to rally in Lee’s Summit ahead of a Thursday school board meeting. And parents Shawnee Mission and Olathe are organizing online to reopen schools even though health officials have urged caution.

Elle Moxley covered education for KCUR.
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