Differences in COVID measures complicate school operating decisions

Differences in COVID measures complicate school operating decisions

Questions about when and how to reopen Kansas schools this fall – and how to keep them operating – have become perhaps the most contentious issues this generation of Kansas school leaders have ever faced. 

The State Board of Education’s vote on whether to approve Governor Laura Kelly’s plan to delay all schools’ start dates until after Labor Day created more than 1,000 pages of public comment and tens of thousands of individual responses on the State Department of Education webpageThe State Board rejected Kelly’s proposal on a tie vote, which left the reopening decision to local school boards.  Local boards are facing bitter criticism – possibly up to physical threats – no matter which decisions they make.  

At least some of the difference of opinion may come from the fact that Kansans are having different experiences with the COVID-19 pandemic. To explore those differences, KASB looked at the multiple ways the pandemic is measured, and the geographic variances across the state. 

First, let’s look at the statewide trends. Since the first cases were reported in early March, nearly 29,000 Kansans have been diagnosed with COVID-19, with about half of those added since the end of June. That means about 1 percent of the state’s population has been reported with the disease. According to national data, that ranks Kansas about 33rd among the 50 states iCOVID cases based on populationwhere ranking 1st means the higher percentage of cases based on population and 50 the lowest. 

But there are big differences among Kansas counties in COVID. In early August, statewide there were just under 10 cases per 1,000 Kansans. Six counties (Ford 63.1 cases per thousand, Seward 52.6, Finney 45.4Clark, 22.1Wyandotte 28.5, and Lyon 19.6) are double the state average or higher. Nine counties had rates between 10 and 20 percent. 

Among the other state’s largest counties, the number of cases are higher because of large populations, but the case rate per 1,000 is below the state average (Johnson 8.7, Sedgwick 8.7, Shawnee 8.2 and Douglas 5.6). 

On the other hand, 64 of 105 counties had less than 5 cases per 1,000. 

Case rates per population shows the cumulative impact of the pandemic in an area since it began, but not how fast cases are currently changing. The State Board of Education’s Navigating Change school reopening guidance suggests that whether schools open for all students onsite, use a hybrid of onsite and remote learning or have all students learning remotely should be based on the trend in cases: whether they are rising, declining or holding steady. 

The Kansas Department of Health and Environment COVID cases website provides information on daily new cases for each county going back to the beginning, and the “Reopening Kansas Metrics” provide a trendline or the previous two weeks (with some lag in reporting). 

(Here is link to the KDHE COVID website. Click on COVID cases in Kansas for detailed information.) 

Between July 15 and July 26, daily new case rates in Kansas were trending down, from about 16 per 100,000 to 8 per 100,00. Among the largest counties, most were also declining or steady. In many of the smallest counties, “steady” means less than a handful of cases over a two-week period. Determining trends can be difficult because the number is relatively small. 

Health officials have suggested that districts also consider factors like hospitalizations and deaths when making local decisions. KDHE Deputy Secretary Ashley Goss joined the weekly KASB Board Leadership Forum on August 5 to discuss some of the metrics available to school districts and education leaders. That video is available here. 

The KDHE website also provides trend data on hospitalizations and deaths. Tracking new hospital admissions by date over the last two weeks in July saw a downward trend from an average of about 13 to 10, and new deaths basically steady at around 3 per day statewide. Those numbers are too few to provide meaningful trend data in most counties.  

Yet another measure is the rate of positive tests. Statewide, about 10 percent of those tested are positive. KDHE data provides daily results of both the number of positive and negative tests and the percent positive, statewide and for each county. 

From June 23 to July 28, among the larger counties, Sedgwick and Wyandotte had positive test rates greater than 10 percent most days and some days over 15 percent. In Shawnee, Douglas and Johnson, most days were between 5 and 10 percent positive. In a sample of smaller districts, most days had either zero percent or no tests reportedwith just occasional days higher than 10 percent. 

None of these metrics or restrictions are currently required. Local school boards will make these decisions unless superseded by a state or local health order. Local boards are weighing several factors. 

One is the balance between health concerns for students and staff and the evidence that many children do not do as well academically or emotionally in a remote learning environment. Another is weighing current local circumstances against concerns that a pandemic can quickly emerge in different areas. Linked to this consideration is the availability of hospital and other health care capacity in the region if new cases break out. 

A third factor is determining which criteria to use, especially when different measures may point to different actions. The actual number of students and staff who decide to return to school versus those who decide to stay home, retire, resign or seek reassignment or take leave may determine how schools actually operate. 

Finally, it is important for school leaders to be aware that any decisions may be subject to change very quickly based on the course of the pandemic in each community.