School board postpones adopting county health department reopening guidance

The board will address the topic again at a special meeting on Dec. 3.

USD 497’s school board discussed using new metrics for reopening schools and planning for the winter sports season during its Monday meeting.

The board narrowly declined to adopt Lawrence Douglas County Public Health’s gating criteria for school reopening until after fall break.

Some board members said they want reopening decisions to rely less on percent positivity — a number that will decrease with planned increases in asymptomatic testing — and asked to look at other metrics that would measure the spread of COVID-19 in the community.

School board president Kelly Jones said schools should consider the incidence rate, which measures the rate that COVID-19 appears over time, in addition to the positivity rate, which measures the percentage of people who test positive.

“I can’t find another county that’s not using incidence rates… The guidelines from KDHE and the CDC all have incidence rates in them,” Jones said.

The debate came as the district is launching a new partnership with LDCPH to test USD 497 students and staff for COVID-19.

The initiative would begin by testing all staff and 25% of students as they consent. So far, 2,000 students have consented to testing. Once a baseline is established, the district hopes to continue periodically testing 25% of staff and 10% of students.

Board members raised concerns with the new testing protocol that introducing a large amount of new data could artificially inflate or deflate COVID-19 positivity rates.

LDCPH Director Dan Partridge stressed that getting valuable data from testing would take time.

“It’s really just being patient with the numbers,” Partridge said.

Board members also discussed results from a community “ThoughtExchange” survey about COVID-19 and distance learning.

Thoughtexchange representative Laura Milne shared the survey’s results with board members.

About 3,400 people responded to the survey, with major areas of concern being increased transparency, the safety of teachers and staff and continued high-quality education for students.

Superintendent Anthony Lewis gave an update on one of the board’s ongoing projects: the COVID-19 dashboard.

The dashboard would allow parents and students to view data about COVID-19 on the district’s website. This information would include the percentage of students who test positive and attendance rates across schools.

However, board members raised concerns about the dashboard. Some said that unless the public understood the calculations happening behind the scenes, the data was not useful.

“I don’t feel that it’s transparent with our numbers the way that it is,” board member Shannon Kimball said.

The dashboard has not yet been published. Executive director of curriculum and instruction Zach Conrad committed to making updates before making the dashboard public.

During the public comment section of the board meeting, community members advocated for more transparency and the inclusion of students and staff in board decision-making.

“The students of this district are watching these problems,” freshman Taylor Sharp said. “It is essential to make sure that these issues are being considered.”