Board votes to fully reopen elementary schools, keep secondary students in hybrid

At a special meeting Monday, Sept. 28, the board elected to send elementary students back full time starting Thursday, Oct. 8

Frank+Harwood+addresses+students+at+a+pep+assembly.+Harwood+outlined+the+district%27s+Coming+Back+Together+plan+for+school+reopenings+at+the+board+meeting+Monday%2C+July+13.+

By Isabel Aerni

Frank Harwood addresses students at a pep assembly. Harwood outlined the district’s Coming Back Together plan for school reopenings at the board meeting Monday, July 13.

Ben Wieland, Mill Valley News editor-in-chief

The school board voted to reopen elementary schools full-time beginning Thursday, Oct. 8 after receiving recommendations from a 13-member advisory group at a special meeting Monday, Sept. 28. Secondary schools will remain in the hybrid model. 

Superintendent Frank Harwood reported the group’s recommendations to the school board and cited evidence of lower transmission and mortality rates in elementary students in the advisory group’s presentation.

“Data indicates that elementary students are less likely to contract COVID-19 and more likely to have mild cases of COVID-19,” Harwood said.

Taking into account all five gating criteria factors equally, the newly-formed advisory group recommended that the school board remain in the yellow zone of the gating criteria. In the yellow zone, elementary students can be in either the hybrid or the full-time learning model. 

The advisory group did not make a recommendation on whether elementary schools should reopen fully or remain in hybrid. Ultimately, after patron input and extensive discussion, the board settled on reopening elementary schools full time. Board member Ashley Spaulding voiced her support for the decision, even with the expectation that cases would increase.

“If we double the capacity of our buildings, we will have an increase in cases,” Spaulding said. ”I still think the fact that we are following the recommendations of our committee and the gating criteria makes this a good decision.”

I still think the fact that we are following the recommendations of our committee and the gating criteria makes this a good decision.”

— board member Ashley Spaulding

The advisory group addressed concerns about mental health that parents in the community have raised. Harwood noted that Johnson County crisis line calls were up 24% this year, but added that suicide rates for the year are down compared to previous years and shared that it is “very difficult to quantify mental health data into a usable metric.” He also noted that, ultimately, public safety would take precedence over mental health concerns.  

“We believe that mental health is very important and should be on par with physical health, but it should not be used to disregard public health guidelines,” Harwood said. “This may have been one of the longest conversations we had.”

At the meeting, board member Bill Fletcher also proposed fully reopening all school buildings. While his proposal didn’t reflect the advisory group’s recommendation or the gating criteria, it was popular among a few parents who spoke at the meeting, like Traci Gervais. 

Maybe at the elementary level, our numbers are low because we’ve done the right thing. If you don’t have enough healthy staff to teach the kids, you’re going to have to go remote anyways.”

— Starside Elementary teacher Tina Darling

“We can take into account the data that is flawed, but also need to take into account hardcore facts of private schools that are having success,” Gervais said.

Others, like Starside Elementary teacher Tina Darling, preferred that the district remain in the hybrid model because of its proven success thus far. 

“Maybe at the elementary level, our numbers are low because we’ve done the right thing,” Darling said. “If you don’t have enough healthy staff to teach the kids, you’re going to have to go remote anyways.”

After the vote concluded, one elementary school educator held up a sign that read “RIP Teachers.” 

The advisory group will continue to give reports to the school board every two to three weeks, based on the most recent changes to gating criteria data. 

At the time of the meeting, student absenteeism and hospital capacity fell into the green zone of the gating criteria, the two-week positivity rate and case trendline fell into the yellow zone, and the two-week incidence rate fell into the red zone. 

The board’s next meeting is scheduled for Monday, Oct. 5. 

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