Shawnee Mission requires older students to learn online only

Facing a critical staffing and substitute teacher shortage, the Shawnee Mission school district will require

Facing a critical staffing and substitute teacher shortage, the Shawnee Mission school district will require older students to take classes online only after Thanksgiving through much of January.

Superintendent Mike Fulton announced in an email on Monday that middle and high school students will return to virtual learning on Nov. 30 through Jan. 22. Shawnee Mission school board president Heather Ousley had warned families last week that with limited staff, the district was having a harder time keeping school doors open.

“We have reached the point where we are unable to fully staff all of our buildings, and need to make a change,” Fulton said in the email, adding that the district has “a rising number of employees who are in quarantine or isolation, which is impacting our ability to staff buildings at all levels.”

Moving secondary school students online will allow the district to use its limited substitute pool at the elementary level, Fulton said. Elementary students will remain in classrooms full time. Officials have said they hope keeping younger students in school will help parents who otherwise would have to take time off work or send their children to day care.

An unusually high number of staff members have resigned or retired this year, and as COVID-19 cases continue to soar in Johnson County, dozens of others are out after being exposed or testing positive, Michael Schumacher, interim associate superintendent for human resources, told the school board during a special meeting last week.

Health officials have said that Johnson County districts have so far largely limited in-school transmission of the virus, thanks to masks and other precautions. But the more that cases spread in the community, the higher the risks of keeping school in person.

On Friday, the Blue Valley district announced it would require older students to return to online classes on Nov. 30 through Dec. 22. Spring Hill also is moving middle and high schoolers to remote learning later this month.

While Fulton emphasized that the decision was not due to outbreaks in school buildings, the recent surge in COVID-19 in the region is taking a toll on districts.

As of Monday in Shawnee Mission, 90 staff and 305 students were in isolation, meaning they tested positive, were presumed positive or were symptomatic for COVID-19. Another 90 employees and 518 students were quarantined after being exposed to the virus, according to district data.

Officials worry that the number of new cases will only continue to skyrocket during the holidays. Health experts have warned against large family gatherings at Thanksgiving.

“Community transmission levels could impact our ability to staff elementary schools, and to perform necessary contact tracing to identify potential spread within our buildings. Again, students and staff have been doing an excellent job of keeping schools safe to remain open, but they can’t do that by themselves. Staffing is a critical issue, and we need the entire community’s help in keeping schools open,” Fulton said in the email.

He said that at the elementary level, the district “will not hesitate to move from in-person to remote learning if health conditions and/or staffing limitations require us to do so.”

Fulton’s email did not mention the winter sports season, but he has previously said the district would allow practices and games.

Coronavirus cases are rising exponentially in the Kansas City metro. Johnson County is reporting record new cases. Fears that COVID-19 would push hospitals to capacity and schools to online classes are now a reality.

On Friday, the Johnson County Board of Commissioners voted 4-3 to approve new restrictions, including a midnight closing time for bars and restaurants, plus a 50-person limit on gatherings. On Monday, Kansas City Mayor Quinton Lucas as well as officials with Wyandotte and Jackson counties announced stronger measures: Restaurants will be required to operate at half-capacity, restaurants and bars must close at 10 p.m., and indoor gatherings will be limited to no more than 10 people.

Johnson County has been reporting more than 300 new COVID-19 cases on average each day, a drastic difference from roughly one month ago when the county saw about 100 new daily cases. The positivity rate — or the percentage of positive tests over the past two weeks — was 16.5% on Monday, a new high.

Sarah Ritter covers Johnson County for The Kansas City Star. Formerly a reporter for the Quad-City Times, Sarah is a graduate of Augustana College.

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