Board unanimously approves full in-person return to schools

The change will take effect for secondary students beginning Monday, Feb. 1


By Ben Wieland

The school board meets to discuss pertinent issues.

Ben Wieland, Mill Valley News editor-in-chief

The board unanimously voted to start second semester in the hybrid model for two weeks but return to full in-person learning Monday, Feb. 1 as long as the gating criteria remain in the “green” category. If the data change, another special meeting will be called to reconsider the decision.

The gating criteria data initially placed the district in the “yellow” category, which would have kept secondary schools in the remote model, but after a new modifier to the gating criteria considering quarantine and isolation data was introduced, the recommendation shifted to “green.” 

The new modifier, coupled with last meeting’s changes to the criteria, produced an interpretation of the data more permissible to reopening. According to Harwood, the changes came as a result of new data on COVID-19 spread in schools. Board president Danielle Heikes explained the decision.

“We are not abandoning the criteria. We are not even modifying criteria,” Heikes said. “What we are doing is adding a modifier to the data. We will do what the numbers say.”

We have staff that are vulnerable. We have staff that are high-risk. We have staff with mental health issues.”

— DTA president Emily Valdez

The decision to return fully in person came as a result of new information on virus spread and uncertainty regarding teacher vaccinations. DTA president Emily Valdez presented data from a survey of DTA teachers indicating that nearly 70 percent of secondary educators would not be comfortable returning fully in person until they were vaccinated; however, board members weren’t willing to wait until a vaccine became available to teachers.

“If we wait on vaccinations, we may not be back in school this year at all,” board member Rick Amos said. 

Harwood was also uncertain about vaccination dates, sharing that “the answer on vaccines is that we still don’t know when [they will be available to teachers].”

The board elected to wait two weeks until switching to full in person learning, remaining in hybrid from the start of second semester to Monday, Feb. 1. This decision came as a result of caution from board members like Stephanie Makalous.

“My concern is that we are moving too quickly [if we immediately switch],” Makalous said. “I know we have seen the data increase in the past week, so I think we would be rushing into making a change.” 

It bothers me when the bars are open, but the schools are closed.”

— board member John Gaignat

Valdez, speaking for DTA during patron input, continued to share the trepidation of educators to return fully in person.

“We have staff that are vulnerable. We have staff that are high-risk. We have staff with mental health issues regarding the constant switching between learning models and the possibility of returning fully in-person without a vaccine,” Valdez said.

Ultimately, a desire for students to return to the classroom among the board won out.

“The kids need to be back in school as soon as possible,” board member John Gaignat said. “It bothers me when the bars are open, but the schools are closed.”

Harwood also shared new information on confirmed virus spread in USD 232 during the meeting. He provided four examples of student-to-student virus spread in classrooms, one instance of spread during lunch, one instance of spread on a school bus, nine instances of virus spread due to school activities, two instances of staff-to-student spread, two instances of student-to-staff spread, and many cases of of staff-to-staff spread. 

During the meeting, the board renewed their busing contract with First Student for another five years. They also approved a $40,000 donation from food packaging company Huhtamaki, dedicated to the Cedar Trails Exploration Center project. 

Board members also received thank you cards from fourth-grade students to celebrate School Board Recognition Month in Kansas, along with a message of gratitude from Harwood.

“Each of our board members is sincerely concerned for the good of our children,” Harwood said.

The next scheduled board meeting is set for Monday, February 1. If the gating criteria change rapidly, a special meeting may be called before then to reevaluate the decision to fully reopen schools.

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