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Wichita Public Schools Holds Course To Reopen Middle, High Schools Despite COVID-19 Increases

Stephan A Bisaha

The Wichita school board decided to move forward with its plan to transition middle and high school students to in-person learning.

The board held a special meeting on Friday to discuss the worsening coronavirus pandemic in Sedgwick County. The positive rate for COVID-19 testing has risen from 5.4% on Oct. 1 to 14.5% on Thursday, the last day data was available on Sedgwick County’s coronavirus dashboard.

The district and county tally coronavirus cases using a different percent positive rate methodology for tracking whether schools should be open. That tally shows Sedgwick County’s percent positive rate at 10.9 percent.

The board voted 4-3 to stick with allowing in-person middle and high school classes, though it did shift the start date from Nov. 9 to Nov. 12. The board will take another look at the reopening plan on Nov. 9.

“Where I always land is what’s right for kids,” said board president Sheril Logan. “Kids need to be in school.”

Despite the rise in cases in Sedgwick County correlating with the reopening of schools, the county’s health director Adrienne Byrne told the board during the emergency meeting that the county can’t prove in-person elementary school classes caused the increase.

“We just don’t have enough data to say this is why this is happening,” Byrne said.

A divided board approved a hybrid learning model on Oct. 20 for middle and high school students. Under the plan, which was set to begin Nov. 9, half the class would meet with the teacher in-person while the other half learned remotely. The two halves would switch later in the week.

Students who opted to attend the online Education Imagine Academy or MySchool Remote would continue to learn virtually.

Board members who voted for the plan said in-person classes are a better alternative than the stress that remote learning is creating for students and parents.

Several district teachers and their union are distressed at the idea of having to teach students virtually and in-person at the same time.

“Our teachers are tired,” Kimberly Howard, president of the United Teachers of Wichita, said at Friday's meeting. “They’re tired of unrealistic expectations.”

Currently, all middle and high school students in the district are learning remotely. In August, the school board cited the county’s high positive test rate – which was 10.2% at the time – as a reason not to allow sixth through 12th grade students back into physical classrooms.

Parents of students in kindergarten through fifth grade had the option for their child to attend in-person classes or learn remotely.

School officials say if COVID-19 test rates continue to rise, learning for all of its roughly 47,000 students will be held remotely. Officials say that will happen if the positive testing rate exceeds 15 percent.

“We understand the impact of decisions on your work, our families, our business community - and most important, our students,” Wichita superintendent Alicia Thompson said in an email this week. “We will continue to be transparent in the data we share, and make the best-possible decisions with the information we have at the time decisions must be made.“

Stephan Bisaha reports on education and young adult life for the Kansas News Service. You can follow him on Twitter @SteveBisaha or email him at bisaha (at) kmuw (dot) org. The Kansas News Service is a collaboration of KCUR, Kansas Public Radio, KMUW and High Plains Public Radio focused on the health and well-being of Kansans, their communities and civic life.

Kansas News Service stories and photos may be republished by news media at no cost with proper attribution and a link to ksnewsservice.org.