OVERLAND PARK, KS (KCTV) - - As Johnson County COVID-19 data show an increasingly troubling spike in cases, the Shawnee Mission School Board held a special meeting Tuesday night to discuss how to apply the Johnson County Department of Health and Environment’s school gating criteria.

After more than four hours of presentation and discussion, the board resolved to stick with the recommendations of the Johnson County Health and Environment (JCDHE), which have been a source of ire for some parents and teachers.

Before the meeting, about 40 teachers and parents stood outside the building where the school board met with health officials.

“We don’t want you to play politics with our lives and the lives of the students in the Shawnee Mission School District,” one of the teachers shouted through a bullhorn.

One participant dressed as the Grim Reaper to send a message of what could come.

“I adore my students and I love to see them. But as I say on this sign, ‘I would take a bullet for your kids.’ But I shouldn’t have to put in a preventable situation when I can absolutely teach them as proven remotely,” said Jenny Coleman, who teaches art at Trailridge Middle School and has a 7-year-old son learning remotely.

Coleman placed flags in the ground to visualize the number of students currently in isolation or quarantine: 698 in all. Tea lights circled the flags to represent certified staff in the same spot: 127 of them.

They asked why, after the county numbers put the district in the red zone, the district has yet to go remote as the gating chart at first glance says it should.

Kelly Zandiehmadem chose hybrid learning for her middle school son at the start of the year based on the gating criteria issued at the time by the JCDHE. She is furious she now can’t switch to the remote option at a point where the incidence rate and percent positive rate is the highest it has been since tracking began in March.

“We made an agreement, so if they’re going to change their agreement, I want to be able to change to put my student 100 percent online,” said Zandiehmadem

After the school year started, On October 3, the JCDHE changed its criteria.

On November 3, the JCDHE declared the recommended phase as red, noting “community spread is very high.”

But they added that they did not recommend changing learning modes because “mitigation efforts the schools have implemented have worked thus far” and “the spike in cases is not being driven by schools, but activity within the community.”

Inside the meeting, Elizabeth Holzschuh, the Johnson County Department of Health and Environment’s Director of Epidemiology, addressed that.

“While we are seeing cases in your staff and your kids, they do not appear to be contracting it in your school building and I think that’s what’s really important,” said Holzschuh.

She said early on they had little experience with how well mitigation strategies would work in the county's districts and contended Tuesday night that it has worked very well.

What became clear, however, was that staffing could be the decider, the nail in the coffin so to speak, with substitute teachers also dwindling due to the virus.

Dr. Michael Schumacher, Interim Associate Superintendent of Human Resources, said the number of certified staff lost to resignations, retirements, and FMLA leave were “extraordinarily high.”

Since July 1, he said they had 52 resignations or retirements, a number he said typically ranges from three to five. For FMLA, he said the current number is 42, compared to a typical number of ten to 15. Added to that is the 127 currently out for isolation or quarantine. The substitute teacher pool, he said, has also declined.

“We have a dwindling substitute fill rate that’s the worst it’s been in my five years here,” said Schumacher. “It’s not acceptable. We are trying but can’t keep up.”

Board President Heather Ousley at one point said the district may be asking people to do “almost the impossible,” all while they are dealing with other stress related to the pandemic.

A change to remote learning for that reason would not have to be district-wide but could be done temporarily on a school-by-school basis.

That's what happened in Excelsior Springs last week when several Halloween parties caused the high school to go remote through the end of the Thanksgiving holiday.

At 10:30 p.m. the board voted on two separate categories, one for academics and one for activities and athletics. In both cases they resolved to follow the recommendations of the JCDHE. In regards to academics they made clear in their resolution that the superintendent could institute a policy that is more restrictive but not less so. On the topic of activities, they added that the superintendent could institute a policy that is either more or less restrictive.

That ultimately left the decision-making up to Shawnee Mission School District Superintendent Dr. Michael Fulton. He did not indicate Tuesday night whether he intended to make any changes. 

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