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Lawrence school district declines to give details on students, staff in quarantines

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As COVID-19 case counts rise just a week into the school year, students in Lawrence schools have been directed to isolate after potential exposure to the virus.

District spokesperson Julie Boyle declined to provide the number of students or staff members or the schools from which they’re currently in quarantine; however, the Times has received information from family members of students at Deerfield and Prairie Park elementaries who say their students’ entire kindergarten classes had been ordered to isolate due to virus exposure in their classrooms.

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Boyle said in an email that according to Lawrence-Douglas County Public Health procedures, mask usage is not considered in contact tracing and “when the COVID-19 exposure happens in an early childhood, kindergarten, or first or second grade class, everyone in the class receives a notice to quarantine. The school or school district and public health officials will send direct quarantine notification to any student or staff member identified as a close contact or at risk of exposure.”

Boyle added that individuals may not “test out” of completing the full quarantine period, which is 10 days for anyone within 6 feet for 10 minutes of a person who tests positive or those at risk of exposure to the respiratory particles of the infectious person. Close contacts are given notice to quarantine for 10 days from exposure date.

Quarantine

As of Friday evening, a check of the district’s reported cases database shows 15 positive cases in elementary students, two among middle schools students and five among high school and college and career center students. An adult from Deerfield Elementary and a Boys and Girls Club staff member at Broken Arrow Elementary Schools are also listed.

Restrictions on remote learning

The Kansas law restricting remote learning hours — House Bill 2134remains a point of contention for parents and educators. Signed into law in May, it caps remote instruction in Kansas school districts at 40 hours. The law doesn’t apply to approved virtual education programs like Lawrence Virtual School.

While direct instruction can’t take place remotely, students can still engage in educational apps or activities online, and of course, on paper. But with quarantines put in place so soon after the start of school, some students in quarantine haven’t yet received a district-issued iPad. In addition, teachers haven’t been able to fully conduct assessment testing of their students, making it more challenging to provide appropriate individual learning materials either digitally or on paper. Boyle said any student who hasn’t received a district-issued device should contact their school. 

“Students may take their district technology devices home. Our teachers provide homework for students during the quarantine period. Teachers are available via email or phone to answer questions about homework.”

A Times reader also expressed concern about students in quarantine unable to access free breakfasts and lunches while isolated at home. Boyle said families should share needs with their schools and receive referrals to community resources.

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“Due to a staffing shortage in Food Services, the school district is unable to provide school meals to students other than students being served breakfast and lunch in our buildings,” Boyle wrote.

The law that restricts remote learning was part of a bill packed with educational provisions including expanded eligibility for private school scholarships.

Lawrence Rep. Dennis “Boog” Highberger said if it were up to him, the restrictions on remote learning causing frustration would not have been in the final version. When the bill went into conference committee, he said, some of the school voucher provisions were negotiated out. In the highly partisan climate of the Kansas Statehouse this year, Highberger said he believed if negotiators had pushed any harder “the whole bill could have been a lot worse.”

Highberger, who also practices law, said he thought one of the exemptions mentioned in the law would allow school boards to submit names of students in quarantine to the Kansas State Department of Education. The state board would apply an exemption for the 40-hour restriction to those individuals, allowing them to receive instruction remotely on a student-by-student basis.

“That’s the way I read the bill. If the school district reads it differently I’d sure like to hear about it,” Highberger said.

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New school testing options with federal funding

In Kansas’ Updated Guidance for COVID-19 Prevention in K-12 Schools dated July 30, vaccination is designated as “the leading public health prevention strategy” to end the pandemic. The guidance encourages school districts to work with local and state public health partners to plan vaccination clinics, like the back-to-school vaccination events the Lawrence school district offered in its secondary schools.

Following CDC recommendations, fully vaccinated people 12 and older do not have to undergo quarantine after exposure to COVID-19 as long as they don’t experience symptoms. With elementary students ineligible for vaccination and the delta variant affecting children in higher numbers than previous versions of the virus, K-5 schools are experiencing more positive cases and quarantines, as the numbers in Lawrence schools suggest.

Rounding out the guidance are a “robust testing strategy,” good personal hygiene, physical distancing of 3 feet or more and masking regardless of vaccination status — which the Lawrence school district has required indoors since July 27.

COVID-19 Prevention Measures state the district will provide saliva-based PCR testing kits upon request and when “staff and students report COVID-19 symptoms.” They further state, “Staff and families should notify school officials if they or their children have COVID-19 symptoms, test positive for COVID-19, are waiting for test results, or had exposure to someone with symptoms or a confirmed or suspected case while not fully vaccinated.” In other words, vaccinated students and staff are not required to report exposure. School nurses have access to the statewide vaccination database and check it as needed during contact tracing procedures.

The Kansas Reflector reported this week that onsite COVID-19 testing is taking place at 75 Kansas schools with more slated to start soon. It’s part of the Kansas K-12 Stay Positive Test Negative Initiative. With $74 million in federal funds to increase COVID-19 testing in pre-K through 12 schools and school-sponsored camps and summer programs, the money will be provided in conjunction with Kansas Department of Health and Environment project specialists. They will offer hands-on support with budgets and implementation plans to the school districts — and individual schools — that voluntarily participate.

Three plans, and any combination of the three, are available for testing of students, teachers and staff. They are: Test to Know with strategies for people who are symptomatic, have been exposed, and those returning to school after breaks; Test to Stay and Learn with a goal of keeping students in school by providing daily testing during quarantines and outbreaks; and Test to Stay, Play and Participate by offering testing strategies that allow extracurricular activities and school-based events to continue.

A key benefit of using the plans is they can help testing schools avoid quarantines by allowing those who have come into contact with a person who has tested positive to continue in-person learning or return sooner if daily tests produce negative results. When asked if the district would implement the plan and what strategies it would use, Boyle did not provide any details.

“The district continues to assess and discuss adjustments to our plans as new information is learned and circumstances change. As we learned last year, all plans are subject to change.”

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The Times reached out to the KDHE to inquire whether Lawrence Public Schools had submitted a proposal for the program but did not receive a response by publication time Friday evening.

Boyle said people who’ve tested positive for COVID-19 who present proof via a note from the health department or a PCR or antigen test result within the last six months are not required to be quarantined if they continue to show no symptoms.

Effects of quarantines on staff

The Times asked Boyle how teachers and staff who were in quarantine would be compensated and how their absences might affect class sizes.

Boyle said the district was following its regular leave practices regarding staff absences due to COVID-19 isolation and quarantine and would continue to monitor and make adjustments when needed.

“Human Resources has assigned each school a daily building substitute. The district has a couple of these building sub positions left to fill. Human Resources works closely with our substitute agency to fill positions,” Boyle said. “It has not been necessary to combine classes. If the need arises, the building principal will work with Human Resources to determine a plan that works best for the building.”

Boyle added, “The district’s goal is to keep students and staff safe and in school. We have tremendous respect and appreciation for the outstanding work of our teachers, staff, and administrators to support students and families during these uncertain times. We understand that the pandemic has placed heavy burdens on families and empathize with feelings of frustration. We encourage families to keep open lines of communication with their schools so we can answer questions and problem solve challenges together.”

— Article updated at 9:30 p.m. Friday to reflect new reports of COVID-19 cases

Click here to see the latest COVID-19 stats for Lawrence, the Lawrence school district, and Douglas County on the Times’ dashboard.

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