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Parents Urge Shawnee Mission School Board To 'Let Us Take The Risk' Of In-Person Learning

Kyle Palmer
Shawnee Mission Post
Ali Vincent was one of a handful of parents and students who stood outside Shawnee Mission West High School on Monday, holding up signs in support of the district’s plan to reopen schools with all students learning remotely.

All students in the Shawnee Mission School District will start the year virtually to slow the spread of the coronavirus. But some parents say society has "moved on" from the pandemic, and it's time to get kids back in school buildings.

More than 30 people took to the mic Monday afternoon in a sometimes-emotional public listening session regarding the Shawnee Mission Schools’ decision to open the 2020-21 academic year with all of the district’s roughly 27,000 students learning remotely.

The district’s choice to start with remote learning — and to also suspend all sports and extracurricular activities — came after county health officials advised public school districts last week that some key COVID-19 trends are increasing and that community spread is continuing in Johnson County, making in-person learning potentially unsafe.

Still, most of the commenters at Monday’s listening session in the auditorium at Shawnee Mission West High School pressed the Board of Education to open with in-person classes or some form of hybrid learning — especially in elementary schools — when the school year starts on Sept. 8.

“You can put it on our [parents’] heads now,” said Aaron Mendoza, the father of a Shawnee Mission West sophomore. “If you were to create a waiver system, I’m sure most of us would accept it. Let us take the risk.”

Later, outside the district’s Center for Academic Achievement, as the board conducted its regular meeting, a large crowd made up mostly of students and parents, rallied for in-person classes. Some high school football players wore their jerseys and people held signs saying, “Let Them Play,” and “Let Us Learn.”

Health top-of-mind

The dilemma facing district officials was apparent Monday from the arguments made by both those supporting the decision to start remotely and those wanting to see in-person learning.

Those in support of a remote start said they felt unsafe with gathering at school as county-wide COVID data continues to show new cases and positive percent test rates increasing in recent days.

Alyssa Passmore, an art teacher at Hocker Grove Middle School, said she missed her students “something fierce” but had been anxious before the district announced it would start the year remotely. She thanked the board for that decision Monday.

“I’m not pushing for remote learning because I’m lazy or because I don’t want to teach anymore,” she said. “But I don’t want to come to terms with the fact that I could die or kill my students. I will not live with the guilt of spreading the virus to the vibrant community that I serve and love.”

That sentiment was echoed by a small group of parents and students who stood outside SM West before the listening session.

Ali Vincent is a parent of a kindergartner and 6th grader in the district. She worries one of her children may struggle with remote learning but also fears that her children could spread the coronavirus to their grandparents, two of whom have health conditions that could make them more susceptible to COVID-19’s effects.

“We’re going to adjust,” Vincent said. “That’s a learning lesson in and of itself.”

Kyle Palmer
Shawnee Mission Post
Members of the Shawnee Mission School Board of Education listen to public comments regarding the district's plan to reopen with all students learning remotely.

At the listening session, commenters pushing for in-person learning said public health and students’ well-being were top of mind for them, as well. Parents, teachers and two high school students who spoke Monday, raised concerns about the negative impacts on mental health and emotional and social development that being away from school during the pandemic was having on kids.

Skylar Bellinger, the parent of an incoming kindergartner and 3rd grader in the district and a child psychologist herself, said she was especially worried about elementary-aged children.

“We know they need more supervision and guidance. They can’t self-direct their learning as easily. We know school provides buffering for trauma and child abuse at home,” she said. “We know kids need security and consistency and healthy meals and exercise and positive interactions and positive relationships for their brains to develop.”

An emotional moment

The loudest applause of the listening session came following the comments of Gina McCabe, the daughter of Dennis Wilson.

Wilson was the first person shown to have died from COVID-19 in Johnson County on March 21. He was a retired public schools superintendent who lived in Lenexa with his wife, Joanna.

On Monday, McCabe said her father would want Shawnee Mission students to be returning to school this fall.

“I know in my heart that if he were here today, my dad would want us to be brave, to be strong,” McCabe said. “He wouldn’t want our kids to learn virtually or for us to pursue any second-rate alternatives to the in-person education our children deserve.”

Kyle Palmer
Shawnee Mission Post
Gina McCabe, the daughter of Dennis Wilson who died in March from COVID-19, encouraged the board to “choose courage over fear” and reopen with in-person learning.

McCabe implored the board to “choose courage over fear.”

“As for me and my house, that moment came five months ago, and I say today: open up the schools,” she said.

Much of the socially distanced crowd in the SM West auditorium stood and cheered as McCabe walked back to her seat.

Questions about the district's plan

Several commenters Monday questioned why Shawnee Mission was starting with all students in remote learning. At least two speakers pointed out that the recommended guidelines from the Johnson County Department of Health and Environment allow for elementary students to have in-person learning, even if the county is in the so-called “red zone,” according to its school reopening criteria.

But Kay Heley, a former Shawnee Mission Schools nurse who spoke Monday, defended the district’s decision, saying it was “based on science.” She said the problem was not with the board but with “we as a community spreading the virus.”

“We have to get control of the virus. We have to stop the spread,” Heley said. “We know what we have to do: wear masks, social distancing, stopping the spread of droplets.”

Shawnee Mission is now the only Johnson County district starting the year with all of its students doing remote learning. Late Monday night, the USD 232 school board in De Soto voted to reverse an earlier decision to start with all students learning remotely. Instead, the De Soto board opted for a plan that has all students starting in a hybrid model.

Brooke Seiz, a parent of three young children said she and her husband “very much believed in public schools” and supported the district back in the spring when schools first shut down during the early days of the pandemic, but she said Monday they were now considering “alternative” education options this fall.

She said, for better or worse, much of the rest of society has “moved on” during the pandemic, and it’s unfair to punish kids and families by forcing them to stay home.

“People can eat in bars and restaurants and they can do that safely, though some do and some don’t,” she acknowledged. “Yet, we are telling kids they can’t do that. With families with early-elementary kids, sheltering at home is often not doable.”

At the end of the listening session, Board President Heather Ousley said the district’s reopening criteria had been voted on and approved by the board July 27. She said she “fully supported” the choice to start with all students learning remotely.

“I worry about our educators and our cafeteria workers and our custodial staff and our administrative staff,” she said. “This is truly a situation none of us wanted to be in.”

The Shawnee Mission Post is a digital news outlet serving Johnson County, Kansas. You can read more of their stories at shawneemissionpost.com.

Kyle Palmer is the editor of the Shawnee Mission Post, a digital news outlet serving Northeast Johnson County, Kansas. He previously served as KCUR's news director and morning newscaster.
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