District introduces plan for fall reopening at board meeting

Superintendent Frank Harwood fielded questions about the Coming Back Together plan, which could allow all students to return to school in person this fall, at a board meeting Monday, July 13

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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

At a question-filled Board of Education meeting, superintendent Frank Harwood introduced the first public version of the district’s Coming Back Together plan for a return to school this fall with a two-hour-long presentation to the board Monday, July 13. 

The plan for full in-person learning to resume, which will be finalized after the Kansas Department of Education releases its own recommendations, addressed contentious topics like mask wearing — which will be mandatory, with few exceptions — and introduced ambitious proposals, like the ordering and distribution of 16,000 cloth masks to students and staff. 

The in-person learning plan hinges on safety; the county health department will, according to Harwood, force individual schools to shut down and move back to remote learning if they experience a COVID-19 outbreak. 

“Our objective is to have students on site as much as safely possible,” Harwood said. “The key word there is safely.” 

Much of the plan also remains unfinalized, as the district awaits recommendations from the Kansas Department of Education and KSHSAA. The question of how — and if — extracurriculars and sports will be permitted is still up in the air, and the answer is subject to change at any time. 

Another important factor in the school’s restart that will be finalized after the state releases its recommendations is an optional remote learning choice for students. If the district goes ahead with this remote learning choice, remote students will be held to the same standards as in-person learners. Those students will be required to conference with one of their teachers at least once a day, submit a log of their daily activities to the school and won’t be allowed to participate in or attend extracurriculars.

A few decisions, though, such as mask requirements and social distancing goals, have been essentially set in stone. Masks will be required for all students unless they are eating, drinking or outdoors; students who are socially distanced will have the option to remove their masks “for a short time,” per Harwood. 

The district has also determined that reopening schools at 100% capacity will make six-foot social distancing impossible. The goal will be to maintain three feet apart at all times, which falls short of the recommendations of county health officials but still reduces disease spread when coupled with masks, according to Harwood. 

Under the current plan, students would not be checked for fevers or COVID-19 symptoms at the door; instead, parents would be required to check their children for symptoms. Disposable masks would be provided at the door to students who arrive at school unmasked. 

Other, smaller changes will also come into effect throughout the district. Students will be encouraged to use water fountains as refill stations for water bottles instead of sipping from them directly and elementary students will have to wear masks on crowded playgrounds, among other changes. 

One point of emphasis from the board, which they view as especially important in a large 12-school district, is consistency in rules and guidelines across schools. Board president Danielle Heikes emphasized the importance of this district-wide consistency in the midst of the current chaotic environment.

“Where we can have consistency and continuity, I think we should try to come together as a district and do that,” Heikes said.

While discussion of the Coming Back Together plan dominated the meeting, a few other logistical issues were addressed by the board. Danielle Heikes was selected as the board president and Rachele Zade as vice president; both board members reprised their positions from last year.

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