District to continue hybrid learning in orange tier of reopening

Despite growing positivity rate, in-person activities, sports to proceed


Isis Norris, Free Press Editor-in-Chief

Hybrid learning and winter sports will continue, despite a 13.8% COVID-19 positivity rate that has pushed the county into the orange tier of its Smart & Safe School Reopening Guidelines.

Lawrence-Douglas County Health Department changed its orange guidance recommendations Thursday afternoon to allow hybrid learning. It previously recommended entirely remote learning and no athletics or extracurricular activities if the county’s positivity rate was higher than 10%.

The altered guidance was released about an hour before the USD 497 Board of Education’s emergency meeting to review continuing in-person learning and the winter sports season.

Board members met with county health department Director Dan Partridge and Douglas County Health Officer Dr. Thomas Marcellino.

Board President Kelly Jones told Partridge that the change made her question the department.

“You’re asking us — with about an hour’s notice — to presume that your judgment change in the last three weeks will keep our staff, our students and our community safe,” Jones said.

Infectious disease specialist Dr. Jennifer Schrimsher was listed as a consulting official for the meeting but did not attend. Partridge is an administrator at the health department and Marcellino specializes in post-concussion treatment.

The health officials pointed to the safety requirements the district has students follow as a reason to continue in-person learning.

“I think there was a lot of concern [about] can schools do it?” Marcellino said. “If we’re able to space and we’re able to use masks with good compliance, it can be done. And that’s not to say that there’s not going to be risk — there’s going to be risk no matter what.”

Winter sports were also given cautious approval, with the exception of wrestling. No final decision was made by district officials about wrestling on Thursday night.

“We don’t recommend wrestling,” Marcellino said. “It cannot be done safely with a mask. We’re asking everybody to wear masks during practice.”

In a statement published in early October, Superintendent Anthony Lewis vowed to end in-person learning “100%” if the county moved into the orange tier. During the meeting, Lewis said factors had changed, including the new county health recommendations.

“Obviously, since October 2, we’ve learned new information,” Lewis said. “As you’re hearing tonight, from our health experts that there are some revisions that have had to be made.”

Lewis also introduced a COVID data dashboard, which will be available on the district’s website. He mentioned plans to regularly test staff and students attending in-person learning.

Health officials and board members emphasized the decision to attend hybrid learning should be based on health guidelines and each student’s personal needs and comfort levels.

“There’re so many different variables that would come into each individual or family’s decision,” Partridge said. “It’s up to each individual family to decide their risk based on health guidelines.”

The board scheduled another special meeting at 5:30 p.m. on Thursday, Nov. 19. Partridge warned that the county could “very well be in the red next week” as cases continue to rise.

Ethan Wood and Alexandria Brown contributed to this report.