Physicians group outlines criteria for opening and closing schools

Representatives of the Kansas COVID Workgroup of Kids told participants in KASB’s weekly school leadership forum Wednesday that it was critical to reopen schools for in-person learning to meet student academic, social and health needs – but urged them to follow new school “gating” criteria to determine when it can done safely. Here is a link to the video, which is available to KASB members.

The criteria were accepted as recommendations by the Kansas State Board of Education earlier this month but are not binding on school districts. The question of when to reopen schools and whether to provide onsite learning and activities or remote only has been deeply controversial in some districts. 

Health experts who developed the criteria said schools should look at five factors in deciding whether to be open: school absenteeism compared to last  year, the two-week increase in county COVID cases per 100,000, whether those numbers are increasing, decreasing or stable, the percent of COVID tests that are positive over the past two weeks, and capacity of local and area hospitals. 

Each of those measures is bench marked Green, Yellow, Orange and Red. Many Kansas counties remain at the low end of risk, some counties are in the Orange or Red zones. At that level, the criteria recommend that all or most learning student activities be remote only. 

This information is available for each county, and for age groups within that county, on the Kansas Department of Health and Environment COVID resources page, and clicking on School Gating Metrics. 

The work group prioritizes getting students in pre-K though grade 5 back to full-time learning onsite. They said younger students are less likely to contract the disease and become seriously ill, are less likely to spread it, and are more likely to struggle with online learning. Having younger children at home is also a bigger problem for parents trying to work. 

The criteria also recommend how schools should approach student activities. If the community burden is too high to have safe on-site education, the physicians said extracurricular activities should be creatively modified to ensure safety, such as encouraging teams to meet remotely to support social emotional development; continuing low risk activities such as tennis, golf, cross country, debate, forensics, scholars bowl, etc. They also said in periods of on-site education, extracurricular activities should implement enhanced safety measures and extreme discretion for competition between schools and the presence of any spectators. 

Presenters from the group recognized that the data does not always give clear direction. Some districts are in multiple counties, have such small numbers it is difficult to identify trends, or have special circumstances that affect the data. They recommend that districts use a COVID-19 Advisory Committee that includes board members, district leadership, district nurses, teachers, community leaders, health officials, parent representation and physicians to meet on a regular basis to assist the local board in determining the most appropriate risk zone for school decisions. 

While stressing the goal of returning students to onsite learning as soon as possible, the group also stressed that the experts who developed the KSDE Gating Criteria consider them as lenient as was safe to get students back into school. They strongly recommend against loosening any of the Gating Criteria or decreasing restrictions to start the school year. 

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