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JCHS opens doors to students after construction-related delays

The new Junction City High School opened its doors to students for the first time Aug. 25.

Students poured into the new school to the sound of the JCHS band playing and cheers from the cheer squad.

USD 475 Superintendent Reginald Eggelston said he was “excited” to have students enter the school for the first time.

“It’s very exciting to have all of our students coming back and teachers and all who have done a great job of preparing and getting the school ready,” he said. “It’s an exciting moment — very exciting.”

He said the district had run into no significant challenges on JCHS’s first day of school. District staff directed traffic in the parking lot, guiding students and parents where they needed to be and both the Junction City Police Department and the Geary County Sheriff’s Office showed up to help manage traffic flow.

“It seemed like the traffic flow went well,” Eggelston said. “Parents followed the guidance of the staff out here.”

He said he does not believe JCHS will “run into anything out of the ordinary” this school year.

“I think it will be the same as always,” he said. “We’re going to continue to try to make academic success the number one priority of the year — making sure that all of our students get a quality education and that we graduate all of our kids on time. So that’s going to be our focus.”

According to Eggelston, there will be about 1,500 students at the school this year “which is definitely on target.”

The school has the capacity to house about 1,800 students.

“We’re well under capacity and class sizes are good,” Eggleston said. “We’re just excited to have everyone back and in-person school after going through a tough pandemic year last year.”

Being under capacity might not be a bad thing with COVID-19 still going on to allow for more social distancing.

“We have our COVID measures in place,” Eggleston said. “We’re going to continue to make that an emphasis — our number one priority is to keep everyone safe, keep our schools open just like we did last year. So we’re going to continue with that same effort.”

Because of the new building, the first day of school was a major milestone for JCHS and USD 475.

Principal of JCHS Merrier Jackson said in order to help students navigate their first day, the first day of classes was spent on guided tours of the facility.

For the first day of school, JCHS staff filmed short welcome videos which students were able to access using QR codes that were placed around the building.

Jackson said she was “relieved” to have the school open its doors with no problems. She had been concerned about traffic, but no problems took place.

“I was able to be out there, greet the children, welcome the families,” she said. “That felt really good. It’s (just) a building until they come here — until the children and families show up. Now we have life. So I’m feeling really good about today.”

The new building will be an adjustment for some, as will returning to in-person classes.

Jackson said one student had been nervous about returning to school after having been out of school for year.

“She was so nervous coming back to school,” Jackson said.

Which is why students spent the first few days back in class adjusting.

“We’re going to spend time building relationships,” Jackson said. “The teachers helped to create this orientation. They’re going to walk the building, see the different places, meet different people. We have a lot of different games that we’re playing. But it’s kind of relaxed. It’s about building relationships.”

Regular classes resumed later that week.

Jackson also praised the new building. She spoke about the special ed conference room, the landing overlooking the media center and about the general openness of the building.

“It feels open and freeing … They still have a bit to do,” she said. “I’d probably say we’re 90 percent of the way done.”

The school’s gym is still under construction.

According to JCHS Scholarship Coordinator Margie Pinaire who helped direct students around the building on their first day, the new JCHS is the third largest high school in the nation.

“It’s the largest high school in Kansas,” Pinaire said. “It’s a great experience for me as an employee and I can’t imagine it not being that for everybody that enters this building — really.”

She has been working daily in the new building since the staff returned in mid-August.

“Every day is a new day — it’s great,” she said. “It’s amazing.”

With students safely transferred from the old building to the new one, there is still the matter of the former high school site.

At this time, there is no news on the former JCHS site. The city and school district had been in discussions about the future of the old school site, but has not reached a consensus yet, according to Eggelston.

County adds two more COVID-19 deaths

Two community members died last week of COVID-19.

According to the Geary County Health Department’s count, a total of 35 community members have died of the virus since the pandemic arrived here in the spring of 2020.

According to the health department, there are now 70 known active cases of the virus in the community and six people hospitalized with the virus. According to the health department, there have been 124 cases of the delta variant noted in the community including 19 breakthrough cases where someone who had been vaccinated managed to contract the virus.

According to Geary Community Hospital there are currently six people hospitalized with COVID-19 in Junction City. Those hospitalized with the virus include one vaccinated person and five unvaccinated people. Three COVID-19 patients are in the ICU at the hospital, all of whom are on ventilators. In total, GCH has 17 people seeking inpatient treatment at its facility, including both COVID-19 patients and those who are at the hospital for other procedures.

There have been a total of 2,233 confirmed positive cases of the virus in Geary County by the health department’s count. The health department has recorded 2,130 total recoveries from COVID-19 in the county.

This differs from the count offered by the state. The Kansas Department of Health and the Environment lists Geary County as having had a total of 4,234 cases of the virus since the pandemic began.

According to the health department, these surplus cases — a difference of 2,001 cases — are accounted for by Fort Riley numbers.

According to the KDHE, Geary County has had 141 total known cases of COVID-19 variants, including 17 cases of the alpha variant and 124 known cases of delta.

The KDHE lists 48 total COVID-19 deaths as having taken place in Geary County since the pandemic started, including 30 male and 18 female.

Fort Riley and USD 475 Geary County Schools partner for property demolitions

Leaders of Fort Riley and Unified School District 475, Geary County Schools, formally signed an Intergovernmental Support Agreement (IGSA) on Friday to partner in the demolition of obsolete school buildings on Fort Riley.

Col. Will McKannay, U.S. Army Garrison Fort Riley commander, was joined by Cmd. Sgt. Major Tim Speichert, Fort Riley, Dr. Reginald Eggleston, USD 475 Superintendent, and Dr. Anwar Khoury, USD 475 Board of Education President, to sign the agreement.

USD 475 operates one middle school and four elementary schools on Fort Riley. USD 475 received Department of Defense grant funding to replace the old Fort Riley Elementary School (Building 104) due to aging infrastructure and overcrowding. In April 2021, the Office of Local Defense Community Cooperation (OLDCC) approved a matching grant for USD 475 to build an additional new elementary school on Fort Riley in place of Jefferson Elementary School. The contract USD 475 is utilizing for demolition of the old Jefferson Elementary School (Building 4720) will be modified to include demolition of the old Fort Riley Elementary School (Building 104). The result is an estimated cost savings to the Government of $194-thousand and a cost avoidance for USD 475 through use of the Fort Riley Construction and Debris Landfill.

“We are excited for this new partnership that paves the way for Fort Riley and USD 475 to share resources and services in order to accomplish much needed work on Fort Riley,” Col Will McKannay said.

“I appreciate the partnership we have with Fort Riley,” Dr. Reginald Eggleston said. “Working together on projects like this demonstrates a unit of effort toward supporting our families and students. Additionally, it also demonstrates good stewardship of resources.”

Dr. Anwar Khoury added, “The agreement between the district and Fort Riley demonstrates a strong partnership that serves the region.”

McCallum runs for school board on student success

Kelli McCallum is running for USD 475 board of education.

McCallum is the mother of two children who attend school within USD 475.

She is currently self-employed as a certified real estate appraiser. McCallum said she wants to run for school board in order to help with student improvement.

“I just feel like I could really work on achieving student success, advocating for district staff and engaging community involvement,” she said.

In order to achieve those goals, McCallum hopes to learn what the people the district serves need most from the board of education.

“I think learning about what the needs are of our families and our students” would help, she said. “Doing focus groups and things like that to kind of engage staff and parents and community.”

McCallum anticipates challenges coming up if elected. They already have even as she campaigns for a position on the board.

“There’s already been things that have come up that I had no idea would have been on the horizon,” she said. “I think there’s going to be a lot of challenges that are unforeseen. But being able to research and look into those and look at them with a fresh, open mind are things that I can work to do.”

If elected, McCallum said she hopes to learn.

“Just go in with an open mind and learn a lot and keep an open mind the whole time,” she said.

McCallum does not know what changes need to take place in the district yet, if any.

“I think I have a lot to learn before I just decide that changes need to be made,” she said. “I’d really just like to advocate for students and for district staff.”

McCallum has lived in Junction City for the past 15 years and has “been involved in a lot of different school district and volunteer opportunities” during that time.

“I really enjoy this community and I like to look at things in a positive light,” she said.

McCallum said she is passionate about the district.

“I have a passion and commitment to our community and students and staff,” she said. “I plan to work hard if elected.”

McCallum has a Bachelor’s Degree from Washburn University in Health Services Administration.

COVID-19 booster shots available through GCH for the immune-compromised

GCH now has booster shots available for people who have received their COVID-19 vaccinations and who are eligible to receive boosters.

According to GCH Marketing Director Ashley King, the booster shots have been made available to those who want them.

People who are immune-compromised can receive a doctor’s order and be allowed to receive a booster vaccine.

King said she believes the State of Kansas will roll out phases for the boosters in the near future as it did with the initial vaccinations.

King encourages people to receive booster shots as they come available.

There has been a surge of the COVID-19 delta variant in Geary County in the last few weeks with about four people dying of the virus at GCH in the past two weeks.

King said it was hard to gauge the severity of the recent surge of delta cases, but that the most recent surge seemed more apt to kill the unvaccinated people who have ended up hospitalized with the virus at GCH.

“It’s really hard to tell because the way our deaths are accounted for are really the deaths that our hospital knows about and relays that information to the health department,” King said. “I would imagine there’s probably more deaths than our county is reporting just because they won’t know that they happen — if someone does at home or if someone dies in another hospital in Wichita or Kansas City but reside in Geary County — that death might not be reported to our local health department. It’s definitely been worse in our facility this time around with deaths than in the previous round.”

King believes this can be attributed to the delta variant causing more severe illness, an severity which can be lessened if someone is vaccinated before catching the virus.

Unvaccinated people, however, deal with the full brunt of the virus.

She encourages people to keep taking precautions and to receive their vaccinations, including their booster shots when they become eligible to receive them.

“I think people should continue wearing masks and social distancing and hand sanitizing is still important,” King said. “Even if you’re vaccinated you can still get COVID — that’s being proven with this delta strand. So if you continue to wear your masks, then your chances are slimmer of getting COVID.”

Contention over possible vaccine requirement for GCH employees

Geary Community Hospital does not presently require employees to receive a COVID-19 vaccination in order to work there.

Members of the GCH Board of Trustees discussed the possibility of putting a vaccination requirement in place, now that the Pfizer vaccine has received full FDA approval.

Dr. John Kovac believes the hospital should put a vaccine requirement in place for GCH employees.

“Now that COVID is here, and that the Pfizer (vaccine) has been totally approved (by the FDA), I think that we should go straight ahead and say, no jab, no job,” he said.

According to Kovac, about 70 percent of GCH staff is vaccinated against COVID-19 at this time.

“That’s 30 percent of them that are at risk,” he said. “Are we willing to put those people up before the firing squad or whatever you want to call this COVID thing? This morning in the news about Israel — Israel has the highest rate of vaccination in a world — 80 percent of their people. Two months ago, they had zero cases of COVID. So they said, ‘great, we’ve got it beat, so they opened up everything, they took away the mask mandate.”

According to Kovac, Israel eased up on its restrictions and vaccine requirements which led to a surge of COVID-19 cases.

“And this morning, they had 9,831 cases, and 670 COVID patients in the hospital,” he said. “It’s not going away. So are we going to do it? The argument was, we can’t afford to have people quitting their job here because we require them to get the vaccine. My question is, where the hell are they going to go? Because everybody else is saying they’ve got to have the vaccine too. They can’t go to Via Christie to work because there’s a vaccine mandate there. They’re going to drive all the way to Salina? I don’t think so.”

Kovac said he believed it was only a matter of time before other hospitals adopted vaccine mandates as well. He said he felt it was a liability issue for the hospital if they did not put a vaccine mandate in place.

Dr. Anwar Khoury disagreed with the notion of a vaccine mandate.

He said the vaccine was not the only way to keep COVID-19 from infecting staff and patients, citing GCH’s current mask policy. Khoury said he believes requiring unvaccinated employees to wear masks is enough.

“Masking is probably as important … If you don’t want to take the vaccine, you get masked,” he said.

Khoury said he believes receiving the vaccine is a personal choice and said it was still possible to catch and transmit the delta variant of the virus even while fully vaccinated. The vaccine lessens the severity of the disease and almost always prevents people from dying of COVID-19, but it does not always stop people from catching it.

“You can still transmit the disease,” Khoury said.

“It will keep you out of the hospital, it will keep you from dying,” Kovac said.

Khoury said there were some employees at GCH who were skeptical of the vaccine.

“Those are the people that need to be gone if they can’t follow the science,” Kovac said.

“People have choices they make,” Khoury said.

“They don’t have a choice to make other people and society ill,” Kovac said.

Board member Theresa Bramlage suggested she and her fellow trustees look into what other hospitals have in place in terms of vaccine requirements for staff before making any decisions.

Geary County has received $25,695.25 after Kansas Treasurer Lynn Rogers and his office searched for unclaimed property in the county’s various departments. A check was presented to the county Aug. 26. According to Geary County Treasurer Kathy Tremont, the funds will be funneled into the county’s general fund.

Hudson campaigns to help district retain educators

Former USD 475 Assistant Superintendent Beth Hudson is running for the Board of Education of the school district she used to help oversee. She retired in 2019.

Hudson said she wanted to run for USD 475 board of education because she spent her entire career in the school district and wants to continue working in it in a different capacity than she had before.

“I don’t think there’s a better place that I could have been,” she said. “I want to continue to support them and I feel like one of the best ways I can make a difference is on the school board. I feel like they just could use the knowledge I have. I think they could also use the support I have.”

Hudson received her Bachelor’s in elementary education from Kansas State University in 1985. She would go on to receive her Master’s Degree in Curriculum and an administrative certification from K-State. In 2010, she received her doctorate from K-State as well, all while working in USD 475.

“When you’re in a district that always talks about learning, I think that was the path that I wanted to take was to be a learner myself,” Hudson said. “For myself it was a personal issue too, that I wanted to finish everything that I could finish.”

She said she is concerned about turnover within USD 475.

“I feel like we’ve lost a lot of administrators,” Hudson said. “We’ve lost a lot of good teachers. And with that goes a lot of our culture that we’ve worked for years (to build) and I feel like we’ve had a great culture in this district — like I said, one of learning, one of support, one of always putting kids first. I worry that we’ve lost a lot of that and I’d like to be able to change that and find out why people are leaving and support them in improving the culture. That’s mostly what I’m about.”

If elected, Hudson hopes to work with administrators to improve the overall district culture.

When serving as USD 475 Curriculum Director, she said she supported administrators who supported students.

“I felt like when I was in that role, I would do everything that I could to help,” she said. “I feel like they need to have that kind of support from the board of education too.”

If she is elected, Hudson foresees a challenge in making up for the lost students suffered when schools were closed to in-person classes.

“Even in the best of circumstances, I think, put us — with kids coming in and out — I think we’re probably juggling, trying to figure out where kids are with their learning and trying to fill those gaps,” she said. “So I think that’s going to be a challenge for us.”

This is a challenge districts around the nation are experiencing in the wake of school closures and virtual classes caused by COVID-19. USD 475 kept its schools open last school year, so Hudson believes many Junction City area students will be in a better place than students from districts that were closed last year, but she believes students’ learning will still have suffered because of pandemic restrictions.

Hudson looks forward to being in USD 475 schools again if she’s elected. After her retirement, she was unable to work in the schools even as a substitute teacher for 180 days. Shortly after the waiting period was up, the pandemic hit Geary County.

“I’m really looking forward to being back in schools and back with staff and getting to see students again,” Hudson said.