School board looks to balance academics, activities and safety

Winter sports, music activities to continue with new safety measures


Sports and music activities will continue with mitigation measures, following Thursday’s special school board meeting. The board also approved new district gating criteria that will potentially allow elementary schools to be in-person in the red zone.

The school board voted 4-2 to adopt the Lawrence-Douglas County Health Department’s regulations for winter activities with a caveat for fine arts programs. Board members also decided to adopt the Kansas State Department of Education’s “Navigating Change” gating criteria with special review of absenteeism criteria in a 5-1 decision.

Under the health department’s current regulations, band, choir and cheerleading are considered high-risk. Board member GR Gordon-Ross modified the motion to allow Superintendent Anthony Lewis the authority to decide whether it is safe to let those activities continue with the district’s mitigation measures.

These mitigation measures include six-feet distanced seating and bell covers for instruments for band and similar practices for choir.

As a member of KSHSAA, the district must follow the prohibition of in-person spectators from all winter sports from Dec. 1 to Jan. 28. 

KSHSAA Executive Director Bill Faflick defined spectators as “anyone who does not have a function or role at the event, such as a table worker or health care worker.”

Parents and students who do not meet the above requirements will have to watch events through Justagame Live, which Free State recently partnered with to stream online events. 

Athletes, officials and coaches who do make it to games in person will have to follow the KSHSAA regulations that mandate face coverings during all activities, except for athletes when they are competing and officials when they are in active play. 

Douglas County’s regulations require athletes, officials and coaches to wear masks even when competing, with an exception for swimmers and divers.

Board member Shannon Kimball, one of the dissenting votes in the 4-2 decision, said she watched videos of wrestling competitions this week and pointed out that wrestlers from visiting teams were not equipped with the specialized masks that USD 497 uses, and the regular masks quickly fell off. She also noted that referees often took off their mask to make calls.

“I think that those circumstances that I witnessed call into question the wisdom of allowing those events to proceed unless we are going to force those requirements on other teams and the officials that are participating,” Kimball said. “It defeats the purpose.”

Lewis emphasized the district’s position on wearing masks during sporting events.

“Our expectation is that any visiting team adhere to the Douglas County mask mandate,” Lewis said. “If we address it and there is no adherence to it, I will shut it down.”

USD 497 requires athletes to wear masks in its buildings but can’t enforce that rule when Lawrence teams travel to other counties. 

After the board voted on the motion concerning activities, they returned to the original discussion in the meeting of which gating criteria to adopt as formal policy.

Kimball advocated for the district to follow Douglas County gating criteria, with an emphasis on incidence rate. Her motion failed after a 3-3 vote. The board then discussed the alternative: adopting the Kansas State Department of Education’s guidelines.

KSDE’s five gating criteria are student absenteeism, two-week county percent positive case rate, two-week cumulative county incidence rate, trend in county incidence rate and local/referring hospital capacity. 

School board president Kelly Jones worried that with constant changes to the criteria, decisions made by the board that evening could be irrelevant by their next meeting. She cited the possible new allowance of PK-5 schools having hybrid learning in the red zone as an example of such rapid changes. 

The Kansas State Board of Education is to consider that change this week.

Kimball expressed concern about the district’s ability to collect data on absenteeism accurately and argued that it should not be weighed equally to metrics like incidence rate. Taking this into account, Jones came back to the meeting with a modified proposal that allowed Lewis to weigh the criteria differently. 

The motion to adopt the KSDE gating criteria passed 5-1, with Kimball dissenting.

“My commitment to the safety and education of our students and staff is most genuinely the priority of my existence right now, outside of my children,” Jones said. “I want to continue to do my best to be a strong advocate and public servant.”