Abilene Middle School will move to remote learning today (Wednesday) for at least one week because half the student body has been quarantined, according to information released Tuesday afternoon from USD 435.
Other school buildings in USD 435 will remain open and those students will remain in face-to-face learning.
“Nearly 50% of the (AMS) students have been placed on quarantine,” the release stated. “Sixth, seventh and eight graders will begin remote instruction on Wednesday, Nov. 11 with the hope of returning on Wednesday, Nov. 18.”
As of 4 p.m. Monday, Nov. 9, USD 435 had 29 positive cases among students (ranging from prekindergarten up to grade 12), staff and teachers and 285 people in quarantine, Nurse Brandi McGivney reported during Monday’s school board meeting.
Board members Randy Gassman and Chris West asked how many of the quarantined are actually turning up sick.
Brown said that a week ago the district had 126 people in quarantine. Out of those 126, eight had converted to positive.
District leaders plan to re-evaluate the situation on Monday and communicate with families at that time.
“The district would like to thank the members of the community who are going the extra mile to help prevent the spread of coronavirus,” the release said. “Teachers and staff are continuing to consider additional mitigation efforts while trying to maintain a first-rate educational setting.”
Abilene school board members want Dickinson County Commissioners and county health officials to modify the quarantine plan for students and staff who may have been exposed to COVID-19.
“We want to modify the quarantine somehow so kids would not be completely out of the (school) building as much as they are right now,” Abilene Superintendent Greg Brown explained during a Tuesday morning phone conversation.
The school board and USD 435 officials believe Dickinson County’s quarantine rules for schools are too restrictive, causing large numbers of students (and staff) to be pulled from school for long periods of time with some having to go through multiple periods of quarantine.
After nearly two hours of discussion and three executive sessions with Kansas Association of School Boards attorney Donna Whiteman, the board directed Supt. Brown to set up a meeting or work session with county commissioners and health department officials to talk about modifying the guidelines.
Also included in the executive sessions were all district administrators and school nurses Brandi McGivney and Laci Foltz.
“I think a work session would be very beneficial so we know what their lane (the county’s responsibility) is and what our lane is,” Brown said during Monday night’s USD 435 school board meeting.
“I think if we have a work session, get it all out there and talk through the issues we have in Dickinson County — especially here in USD 435, we certainly should be able to put together a plan that prudently takes care of our students and staff that’s not so heavily laden with large numbers of quarantined students,” Brown said.
While Dickinson County’s quarantine plan adheres closely to Kansas Department of Health and Environment guidelines, Leavenworth County — for example — is using a less restrictive plan, Brown explained.
He has visited with County Health Officer Dr. Brian Holmes about the situation, but Holmes does not feel comfortable “stepping away” from KDHE guidelines, Brown said.
“I think it’s imperative we get together with the county commission. I think they have different thoughts than we have on how things are working,” said school board member Jeff Bathurst. “My family is in about its fourth quarantine since March. Basically two months somebody in my family has been quarantined.”
Bathurst said he believes county commissioners feel they’re doing the right thing, but its time for parents to decide when their children need to stay home.
“I know our medical officials are overworked, they’re tired and it’s hard for them to do the job and chase everybody down,” Bathurst said. “I think it’s time we allow our community to make decisions when it’s time to stay home, when it’s time to self-quarantine and I think the majority of us can do that.”
He knows of cases where students have been quarantined and told to stay away from school, but yet they are told they can report for work at the nursing home.
“If that student can go to work with vulnerable people at the nursing home, I think they should be able to attend some type of class in some way. It’s not been very fair and it’s affecting people’s lives,” he added.
COVID not only
While all agree it is important to protect everyone from COVID-19, Brown said it’s also important for students to be in school.
Brown referred to one first grader who is in his “fourth round” of quarantine and said the situation is not uncommon and mentioned a high school girl, involved in many activities, who has been quarantined at least three times.
“When you have a large number of kids not able to come to school, then they are having to be cared for in their homes. We’ve got young kids — younger than most of us would consider to be appropriate — on their own in some of their homes,” Brown said.
Those children are on their own because the parents have to go to work.
“They still have to pay their bills,” he said. “Some of those kids are going to grandparents. If the young people are at risk of spreading COVID then the quarantine is actually putting them right next to the very people at highest risk.”
Educationally, the schools cannot meet students’ needs, especially for the youngest students who need face-to-face instruction so they can learn to read.
“We’ve got first graders that have missed four and five weeks of school on quarantine,” Brown said. “So that’s really challenging.”
Schools also are falling short on their social/emotional and mental health responsibility to children, he said. When staff cannot see students daily “face to face,” it’s difficult to determine which kids are struggling.
“That worries us,” he said.
USD 435 launched an online survey for parents and guardians Tuesday afternoon asking them what they have been experiencing. Information gathered will be presented to county officials.
“I think the results of the survey would clarify some of leadership perspectives,” Brown said. “We are going to ask the county to modify the quarantine. I think it’s a conversation that could be very productive.”
Parents and guardians are being asked to compete a survey located on the district website, designed to help the school system gain patron insight about quarantines and remote learning. The survey is located at abileneschools.org.
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