USD 489: Uncharted waters

Margaret Allen
Lincoln Elementary Principal Kerri Lacy was among numerous school staff on Thursday who advocated to the USD 489 School Board for an earlier start date to the 2020-2021 school year in case virus cases rise, forcing remote learning.

USD 489 administrators and principals worry about staffing as the district’s schools head into late September and beyond.

Speaking during the special meeting Thursday of the USD 489 school board, some mentioned the unknown of whether the COVID-19 numbers in Ellis County will get better or worse as the school year gets underway.

Ellis County has seen cases steadily rise in recent weeks.

“We still don’t know if that will be higher in the coming weeks, too,” said USD 489 superintendent Ron Wilson, as the board weighed the decision of when to start the 2020-2021 school year.

A lot of area schools are starting the week of Aug. 24, while Gov. Laura Kelly’s executive order earlier this month sought to delay reopening until after Labor Day.

With districts having local autonomy to choose their own start date, Wilson and other administrators at the meeting at the Rockwell Administrative Center at 12th and Ash streets advocated for earlier rather than later.

They referenced the return of Fort Hays State University students on Aug. 17, raising the specter of more cases developing in Ellis County after that.

“Our goal is really to get our kids back to get them acclimated,” Wilson said. But the situation is in flux as the virus situation changes.

The board decided unanimously on Thursday to open schools fully on Aug. 26, but discussed possibilities for a hybrid model to kick in at some point after that, depending on how COVID-19 numbers progress.

“That would be part of the plan is that we would be meeting with our local medical health professionals as well as our health officer here in the county to determine our numbers and maybe where our percent of positive cases are going,” Wilson told the board.

After talking to local health professionals over the summer, said Chris Hipp, assistant superintendent of business services, there isn’t any one metric the district has determined that would push school from in-person to remote learning. It may not depend on the number of cases in Ellis County, or if HaysMed, as a regional hospital, has a lot of people hospitalized, or even the number of school kids out sick, Hipp said.

“If we don’t have enough subs or teachers, because we have too many out, we may have to shut down,” he said.

Board President Mike Walker said the board may have to discuss adding paraprofessionals and other staff.

Wilson agreed that staffing is going to be a huge issue.

“It will be our biggest dilemma probably, and it could be from our classified staff,” Wilson said, giving lunchroom cooks as an example.

“It’s going to be difficult when we can’t find people to cook food and we’re trying to figure out how we’re still going to have school,” he said.

Likewise there will be a lot of stress on school nurses, Wilson said, as they see kids and staff who develop symptoms. Wilson said the district should hire an additional temporary nurse as a COVID-19 contact person.

“There’s going to be tons of questions from parents,” Wilson said, and that nurse can help ease fears and direct people toward resources.

Masks required

When school starts, everyone in the school buildings will be required to wear masks, because in many cases it’s near impossible to social distance, Wilson said.

“That’s why it’s just extremely important that masks be worn in all of our schools, because of the density, and the spacing,” he said. “We’re going to require them, and people need to understand that. And from the onset, If they really are struggling with that … they do have options for offsite remote learning.”

Students can opt for virtual learning, he said.

“We don’t want to create a big fight or anything,” Wilson said. “We just want people to know that’s going to be part of our life and we have to learn how to live with this for awhile.”

Meanwhile, the schools have been preparing all summer.

Anita Scheve, principal at Wilson Elementary, said the district’s principals are looking at options for student masks.

“As elementary admin, we’ve discussed maybe purchasing neck gators, for the younger kids, which are a little bit looser,” Scheve said. “They could drop them down, and there’s less chance to touch everything else. So we’re exploring some options.”

Recess and physical education classes will be outdoors, she said.

“We’re trying to build in specific times that they won’t have masks or face coverings,” she said. “We’re looking at an option that is less restrictive, and less of a sensory overload for kids.”

There are other possibilities too, said Lincoln Elementary principal Kerri Lacy.

“We’ve purchased some oversized easels that can be taken outside,” she said, “getting our classes outside as much as possible.”

Supplies are ready

Supplies are also coming in, or are on order, said Rusty Lindsay, building and grounds director.

There are different kinds of sanitizers, disinfectants, and media to set it down with, as well as hand towels, soap, products for students to use to wipe down desks, Lindsay said.

“We’ve got plans in place, we’re ready to go,” he said, mentioning there are also building supplies left over from the previous school year cut short in March.

For temperature checks, the district got word Wednesday of a $15,000 donation from Aetna, it’s health care provider, to buy 300 no-touch thermometers.

Out by Memorial Day

Administrators and staff are not interested in reducing the number of student contact days, said Wilson and others.

At the same time they said they’ll work on adjusting the school calendar to avoid school running into June.

“We truly want to get out before June, before Memorial Day,” Wilson said, noting, for example, this last school year the district added 15 minutes to the school day.

Concern about COVID-19 numbers worsening drove much of the decision to start before Labor Day rather than later.

Hays High School principal Marty Straub said contact with the kids is important in case virus numbers increase.

“We are very, very interested in seeing our kids in the event there is growth in the area,” Straub said.

Hays Middle School principal Tom Albers agreed, particularly for incoming 6th grade students.

Kerri Lacy, principal at Lincoln Elementary, said that in her opinion starting remotely, like using ZOOM, wouldn’t be best for most students, but especially for little ones.

“If there is going to be an outbreak in our community it probably will be after our Fort Hays State students come back. My biggest fear is starting completely remote with 5-, 6-, 7- and 8-year-olds,” Lacy said. “I have 5-year-olds that don’t even know what a teacher is.”

“What I’d really like to do is get a week and a half, or two weeks under our belt,” she continued, “before that college influx could possibly, I’m not saying it will, hit our community. And then that’s when we’re in trouble.”

Public’s input appreciated

The board members said their decision was made easier by all the emails, phone calls and face-to-face comments they received from parents and teachers.

Board member Craig Pallister thanked everyone in the district and the parents who have worked all summer to make it possible to get school underway.

“On my list of people to thank after the Ellis County Health Department was the city of Hays,” said Pallister. “I really think they took up the battle of trying to get kids back to school by making the hard decision of putting in a mask ordinance here in Hays. And I want to thank the city commission.”

Saying “we do not delete emails or dismiss information from experts,” board president Mike Walker said the six board members have reviewed the information available, made site visits, reviewed expert opinions, discussed it with teachers, administrators, parents, and others.

“I really appreciated hearing the different points of view,” said board member Lance Bickle, adding later, “I think if we all work together on this we can find some common ground.”

USD 489 School Board President Mike Walker on Thursday at a special meeting of the board at the Rockwell Administrative Center opened comments from the board and public to decide the start of the 2020-2021 school year.