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Coronavirus Cases Put Johnson County In Red Zone, But Public Health Officials Don't Recommend Closing Schools

Rosalie Schard/Shawnee Mission Post
A classroom at Pawnee Elementary in the Shawnee Mission School District set up for in-person learning.

County health officials blamed the spread on adults in the community not following public health recommendations, like mask wearing and social distancing.

The Johnson County Department of Health and Environment on Tuesday moved its recommended phase for school reopening from “Orange” to Red,” as new cases of the coronavirus spike across the county.

Despite the change, JCDHE said it “is not currently recommending that schools change how they are currently operating.” Instead, health officials urge schools to “continue to be vigilant” against spread of COVID-19.

The six public school districts in Johnson County currently have all or most students in schools for in-person learning at least part of the time, though students and families who have opted out of face-to-face learning this semester are learning remotely.

“Data shows that the mitigation efforts [like masking and social distancing] the school districts have implemented have worked thus far,” JCDHE said on its COVID-19 dashboard Tuesday, just below where the “Red” phase recommendation is made.

“JCDHE will continue to work with school districts to monitor the situation.”

Spread coming from the community

The switch in gating criteria recommendation comes as the coronavirus is surging in Johnson County.

On Friday, county health officials reported that Johnson County recorded 287 new coronavirus cases, the highest single-day total since the pandemic began to spread locally nearly eight months ago.

In a phone interview with the Post on Tuesday, county health director Sanmi Areola, expressed frustration toward residents who, he says, have not been following public health recommendations to stay socially distant, wear masks and avoid large gatherings.

“The spread is coming from the community,” he said. “That is where the responsibility lies. From adults in the community choosing not to follow the science or public health recommendations. We have people misleading others, promoting ‘herd immunity.’ We have prominent persons saying, ‘Masks don’t work.'”

He noted that case rates in the 0-9 and 10-19 age group have remained steady or decreased slightly as case numbers for those over 20 have shot up.

“Our students and schools have done a tremendous job. The increase we are seeing is not driven by schools,” he said. “We need adults in our community to not let up and help stop the spread of the virus.”

According to JCDHE’s COVID-19 dashboard, the county’s incidence rate of new cases has risen sharply over the past two weeks and stood at 375 per 100,000 residents on Tuesday. The percent positivity rate has also spiked in recent days and stood at 10.4% on Tuesday.

Both metrics suggest community spread is increasing in Johnson County, just as many public health officials are warning about the strain on the local health care system entering the typically busy cold-and-flu season.

Deaths from COVID-19 are also sharply rising. The number of fatalities in Johnson County from the disease now stands at 219.

‘Anxious and frustrated’

County health officials and public school leaders say schools have been the source of relatively little transmission, since students began returning to in-person learning in late September and early October.

But districts are monitoring cases impacting their schools, and those figures have been rising along with countywide numbers.

In Shawnee Mission Schools, where elementary students have been learning in-person full-time since Oct. 26 and middle and high school students are attending in-person instruction twice a week, the district’s own COVID-19 dashboard on Tuesday showed it had 267 individuals — staff and students — in “active isolation.”

Shawnee Mission School District
The Shawnee Mission School District’s COVID-19 dashboard shows a sharp increase in students currently in active isolation.

That is up from 141 when the COVID-19 dashboard was first unveiled a week ago.

That’s left educators in SMSD with a sense of uncertainty and foreboding.

“Teachers are anxious and frustrated that cases are rising and yet we are opening up classrooms and activities,” Linda Sieck, president of the Shawnee Mission NEA told the Post in an emailed statement Tuesday. “Our secondary schools have only been in hybrid for six days [as of Tuesday morning.] It is very early to see the effects of large numbers of students back in our buildings.”

She said her union is gathering information to see how closely mitigation protocols like masking, social distancing and regular sanitation of classrooms was occurring.

“Teachers are depending on the health department and our school district leaders to make decisions in the best interest of our students and staff,” Sieck wrote.

County health director Areola on Tuesday said the county would soon be hiring at least 20 new part-time workers to assist schools with testing, contact tracing and other pandemic-related “logistics.”

He said they would continue monitoring transmission in schools and that if “major outbreaks” started to happen in school buildings, they could recommend districts return to all-remote learning.

“But our schools have done a good job so far,” he said.

Correction: This story originally stated all six districts in Johnson County had all students learning in person. Older students in Gardner-Edgerton are still learning remotely.

This story originally appeared in the Shawnee Mission Post, a digital news outlet serving Northeast Johnson County, Kansas.

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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