Geary County Unified School District 475 board and staff held a special meeting Monday to answered questions pertaining to the health and safety of children who will return to school during the middle of a pandemic.
Parents will have the option to allow their children to return to the classroom or engage in remote learning. Those considering the in-school option have concerns about their child’s health and the safety measure the district will take to mitigate the COVID-19 risk.
“The questions right now in regards to health and safety are overweighing the academic which is completely understandable,” said Associate Superintendent Lacee Sell. “As we go forward, whatever the question is, we want the guiding answer is ‘what’s best for kids.’”
David Wild, chief operations officer, presented the plan to the board with several patrons watching and commenting on the live Facebook feed. He broke it down into several categories. Before he began his presentation, Superintendent Reginald Eggleston said each building is different and the district is looking at the safety of staff and students in each individual school — there is not a one-size-fits-all plan.
“Everyone has been concerned about the health and safety of our facilities,” Eggleston said.
As the district maneuvers through trying to ensure children are educated and safe from COVID-19 plans they put in place today may change dependent on new information and changes in the state and local health guidance.
The controlling guidance for how to move forward comes from the Center for Disease Control, Kansas Department of Health and Environment and the Geary County Health Department, Wild said.
“The overall guidance is that schools are essential and we need to look at getting kids back into the classroom,” he said.
There are several steps the administration will ask teachers and school administrators to consider, which covers a gamut of areas from the wearing of masks to the placement of furniture and how children will move through the buildings.
Protocols, which students will be taught, include covering sneezes, washing hands frequently and wearing masks.
“A cloth mask that can be reused, that can be washed in warm water with detergent and air dried would be sufficient — something students can use over and over again,” Eggleston said.
Each school administration will also be asked to identify a separate room where children suspected of being positive can isolate. The room should be austere and easily sanitized, Wild said.
Classroom teachers will be instructed to keep an eye on student behavior and watch out for COVID-19-related issues and to show empathy.
“True learning cannot happen until a child is secure,” he said.
Extra furniture should be removed from classrooms. Furniture with fabrics is more difficult to sanitize but removing unneeded items also opens more floor space, which aids in the social distancing requirements.
Wild said another idea is to establish small group of students.
“If you have a small group of 10 to 15 students and one of them should unfortunately get sick you are now dealing with a smaller number of close contacts who need to be isolated or quarantined,” he said.
Having staff rotate into classrooms rather than students rotating from room to room will reduce the amount of movement throughout the school.
Cleaning supplies will go into every classroom — teachers will be asked to conduct frequent and constant wipe down.
Sneeze guards will be installed for receptionists’ desks, nurses’ offices and food service.
Wild asked the board to approve, which they did on a 6-0 vote, $73,00 a month for an “enhanced cleaning initiative.”
“We want to add a new custodian to every school whose only job will be to constantly wipe down the common spaces,” he said. “That individual will be dedicated to going throughout the school … doing nothing but wiping down and mitigating COVID spreading.”
The use of common areas will be restricted. Administrators will be asked to limit non-essential personnel into the buildings and to use virtual meetings whenever possible.
“The goal is to reduce the number of people in the building and reduce foot traffic in the building,” Wild said.
The way students move through the building and change classes will look different in the new school year.
Recognizing that every building has a different floor plan, Wild said they are asking administrators to “be the captain of their own ship” and use the guidance provided to reduce foot traffic.
“One of the things we want to really strongly look at is consider not using lockers this year,” he said. “Maybe we just let the students carry their backpacks. We all know students tend to congregate around their lockers.”
The emphasis is on constant cleaning, Wild said. That can include making the students do the cleaning themselves and making the cleaning materials available to everybody who is involved in an activity.
Students in large-group activities can be broken down into smaller groups so if someone does test positive, not as many students will be affected.
“Keep in mind if we do move forward with the sport season there may be members of a sport team that comes up sick — now we have to cancel the game on Friday night,” he said.
In addition to the students, district planning has to take into consideration the level of audience participation in school activities.
The overarching guidance is streaming of everything — that might be our answer, Wild said.
But most extracurricular activities will be curbed, especially in the early part of the school year.
“We have shared with our administrators to be very conservative this first semester of school,” Eggleston said. “What that means is to minimize any after-school programs with exception of tutoring and remediation. Other than that, we will reduce or eliminate group settings or group events until after we have a better idea of how the pandemic is impacting our community and our school. We can expect fewer activities … as we progress throughout the first semester of school.”
The board approved on a 6-0 vote upgrades to the hardware and software that allows district staff to remotely control heating and ventilation and cooling systems across the district.
All of the buildings were slated to receive the upgrades. Board approval accelerates the work to allow all the buildings to be upgraded rather than just one or two at a time over several years.
“This new capability will allow us, if we have a school that turns out hot for the virus … to purge that building of all the air in the building and replenish it with fresh outside air,” Wild said.
Another change in the buildings has been the addition of water bottle filling stations to replace water fountains. Wild said Live Well Geary County provided the funds to make that possible.
The district will continue the lunch program through the end of July and will likely extend it into August.
Administrators will be asked to look at what means for social distancing will work best for their classrooms and schools.
There not be food bars and students will likely have to stagger their meal times with fewer seats in the dining areas.
The board approved 5-0 to allow the hiring of additional bus aides. At the time of the vote board member Anwar Khoury had left or was disconnected from the Zoom meeting.
An approved plan calls for passengers to wear masks and allows for two students per seat, Wild said.
Students will be screened for fever as they board. They will continue with assigned seating and as weather permits windows on the bus will remain open.
The board also approved, at a cost of $19,000 per year, an increase to an employee assistance program with Pawnee Mental Health for USD 473 staff and family.
They also approved one year of licensing for Zoom meetings. The contract will allow for 1,000 licenses, for meetings to exceed 40 minutes and allow for more than 100 people to attend a meeting.
With all the changes happening and as school administrators try to make the 2020/2021 school year have some semblance of normalcy, Khoury reminded the board there is still a lot of unknown about the virus they are trying to protect the children from.
“Students learn best while in school,” he said. “We should be cautious of this disease but should not fear it. We have to push forward to have our kids go to school.”