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Sep. 7—A Wichita area school district faced so many COVID-19 cases last month, it shut down schools until Sept. 7.

North of Kansas City, Lathrop Elementary School is closed this week after seven classrooms were quarantined and 14 students tested positive for the virus.

School officials in both Kansas and Missouri worry such incidents are a harbinger of what's to come.

Last year, in the face of such outbreaks and mass quarantines, school districts pivoted to online-only classes while buildings were temporarily closed.

This year, it's much more complicated. New state restrictions on remote learning have left districts in both Kansas and Missouri with limited options on educating students stuck home in quarantine. Breaking the rules could mean risking state funding.

As COVID-19 cases surge, school districts are placed in the difficult position of balancing safety with maintaining adequate funding to educate students.

"We don't have the options for remote learning that we used to have. So we're challenged compared to last year because we don't have as many tools available to us," said David Smith, a spokesman for the Shawnee Mission school district. "It's one of the reasons why the school board has been so intentional about strict mitigation practices, to see if we can avoid some of the shutdowns that other districts have experienced."

The highly contagious delta variant is bringing more infections to children — many of whom have chosen not to be vaccinated or aren't eligible because they're younger than 12. In August, 606 children under the age of 12 in Kansas City tested positive for the virus, a 1,100% increase from June, according to the Kansas City Health Department.

As a result, Kansas City area districts are reporting dozens of COVID-19 cases, leading to hundreds of exposed students and staff being pulled out of schools to quarantine.

For example:

— Last week, the Olathe district reported 114 new COVID-19 cases among students, leading to 371 children in quarantine.

— Since classes began, Kansas City Public Schools saw 63 cases and 121 individuals quarantined.

— In the Gardner Edgerton district, 231 middle schoolers were forced to quarantine after an outbreak. The district, in southwest Johnson County, began the school year without a mask mandate for older students, but now requires them for all grade levels.

In perhaps the region's most glaring example, the Wellington school district in south-central Kansas faced outbreaks in three of its six buildings, after just eight days of bringing maskless students back to classrooms. It became the first district in Kansas to temporarily shutter classes and activities due to outbreaks. When students return after Labor Day, they will be required to wear masks, the school board decided this past week.

Compounding the problem, many districts started the school year already strained due to staffing shortages. Some educators worry that if the rising trend in COVID-19 cases continues, more districts will struggle to keep students in classrooms and schools staffed, and they will be required to shut down.

Many districts have launched online learning academies for the small percentage of students who prefer to continue remote learning this school year. But the majority of students need to be back in classrooms for in-person instruction, per state law.

Schools can apply for exemptions to temporarily teach students remotely, but they often aren't enough to cover a typical 10-day quarantine. And many districts are waiting, holding on to those limited hours until they need them most.

In Missouri, the state board of education rescinded its rule allowing extended remote instruction, and now all schools are required to return to on-site instruction full time.

If a class or building must temporarily close, districts can submit a plan to the state, which, if approved, could allow them up to 36 hours of alternative instruction, such as remote learning, said Mallory McGowin, a spokeswoman with the state education department. Schools can also use those plans for individual students for more than 36 hours.

In Kansas, the state Legislature passed a new law restricting remote learning to no more than 40 hours for an individual student.

Schools can request waivers from their local boards for an individual student to exceed the 40 hours or for districts to operate remotely for up to 240 hours. The state board of education can grant those waivers in a "disaster," but it is unclear whether COVID-19 would qualify as a disaster.

Schools that exceed the limits without waivers would lose some funding. Those students learning remotely would be funded at a lower rate for online students.

Some officials are advocating for the legislation to change, so that districts have more flexibility to deal with surging cases.

Educators agree students need to be back in classrooms.

Earlier this year, state leaders pushed for a return to full in-person learning, acknowledging that most students simply don't learn as well online. And with the vaccine becoming more widely available and teachers getting their shots, most thought COVID-19 would largely be in the rearview mirror this fall.

But the delta variant has changed that.

And the more teachers, staff members and students contract the virus or are required to stay home, the more difficult it is to keep school doors open.

Janet Waugh, who represents the Kansas City area on the Kansas State Board of Education, said she hopes Wellington's shutdown won't be the beginning of a trend.

"I'm very concerned," she said.

Schools are strained

Last fall, as hundreds of employees contracted COVID-19 or were exposed to the virus, several Kansas City area districts could not fully staff schools. They had to close buildings and return to remote instruction.

This school year, many districts are already starting out short-staffed.

A labor shortage is plaguing districts still working to hire teachers, paraprofessionals, counselors, custodians, bus drivers and others. And schools are increasingly stressed as they work to maintain operations less than a month into the new year.

Gardner Edgerton already ran out of substitutes to fill in for teachers who were required to quarantine after one week of classes, where older students were not required to wear masks. Officials realized the trend was not sustainable, so they extended the mask mandate to all grade levels.

Elsewhere in Johnson County, Smith said the Shawnee Mission district had about 200 unfilled positions as of last week.

Brian Huff, an associate superintendent for the Raytown district, said hiring enough bus drivers has been especially challenging due to shortages across the country.

"If the virus goes through our bus drivers, and half of them have to quarantine, it'll be tough to hold school because we can't get the kids here. That's the hard part now," said Huff, who added that the district has had to quarantine a few entire classrooms of younger, unvaccinated students.

"And we're all short on substitutes. We upped our sub pay, but it's been a bit of a substitute pay war," he said. "We up our pay, then Lee's Summit ups their pay and attracts people. So we're definitely short."

Vaccinations and masks not only prevent the spread of COVID-19, but they also cut down on necessary quarantines. Vaccinated students and staff, and those wearing masks when exposed, are often allowed to remain in school as long as they are asymptomatic and test negative, per guidance from health departments and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

The CDC says unmasked and unvaccinated individuals who are exposed to the virus, but test negative and remain asymptomatic, can likely return to school after seven days in quarantine. Without a test, health officials recommend a 10-day quarantine.

"We're seeing about half of the kids we would call close contacts are having to actually quarantine, because if you're vaccinated you don't have to quarantine," Huff said. "And the nice thing is if everyone is masked appropriately, you don't have to quarantine."

Local health departments offer schools guidance on when an outbreak is so severe that a building must close.

"Every situation is unique so there is no hard-and-fast rule regarding building closures for COVID-19," said Barbara Mitchell, spokeswoman for the Johnson County health department. "A lot of that depends on the schools' capacity to remain open under the circumstances."

Districts and health officials believe that mask mandates, social distancing, continual cleaning, increased ventilation and routine testing will help avoid shutdowns this fall.

But even with most Kansas City area districts now mandating masks, districts report dozens, or hundreds, of quarantines.

"You can't eat with a mask on. So if you're exposed in the cafeteria, or at recess or something where we don't make them wear a mask, that's when we run into issues," Huff said.

In the Gardner Edgerton district, some parents have claimed that their children have already endured two rounds of quarantines since school began in mid-August.

Sports, where athletes are not required to wear masks in many circumstances, are another issue. Some districts have had to cancel football games due to COVID-19 cases.

And across the country, some schools are living out worst case scenarios envisioned during the pandemic. A central Texas district, for example, closed its schools until after Labor Day when two teachers died of COVID-19.

Learning during quarantine

Districts are finding ways to keep students learning while they are quarantined at home.

Officials in several districts on the Kansas side of the metro said quarantined students will access coursework and turn in assignments through their learning management platforms online.

"Individual students have the ability to access work and work with their teacher to make sure they're keeping up," Smith, of Shawnee Mission, said. "If I'm speculating, when it comes to a classroom (being quarantined), we obviously don't have the options for remote learning we used to have, so it's probably going to mean they will need to accelerate learning once the class is back in session."

In smaller districts with less technology available, students might be sent home with a packet of homework instead.

Many Kansas education officials are not sure if school boards can issue waivers for remote learning for students who are quarantined but not sick, said Mark Tallman, with the Kansas Association of School Boards.

Schools, he said, are balancing whether it's better to continue remote learning for those students and risk funding loss if they have not interpreted the law correctly, or just send work home with quarantined kids.

On the Missouri side, Huff said some Raytown quarantined students are able to videoconference into classrooms.

Missouri allows districts to submit "homebound instruction" plans, which lets them claim attendance for students required to stay home due to medical issues, including those in quarantine. Those plans typically include providing a minimum of five hours of one-on-one instruction per week in person, online or by phone, McGowin said, and could include quarantined students using Zoom to watch a live class from home.

"We have a few classes at the elementary level where the whole class is quarantined. So we moved them immediately to virtual instruction, just like last year, for those two weeks, with the teacher teaching from home," Huff said, adding that the district is working on submitting such plans to the state for approval.

"It gets much harder at the secondary level, where you're not sending a whole class or teacher home," he said, because many students are vaccinated. "So having three or four kids out of class is very hard on secondary teachers. They are managing kids in the classroom and kids at home with recorded instructions."

In the Lathrop district, which has not mandated masks, officials said that students will have access to virtual learning while the elementary school is closed. The school board is expected to discuss its mask policy at its meeting on Wednesday.

But students have already missed out on enough direct instruction time during the pandemic, educators say, which has led to months of unfinished learning compared to a typical year, research shows.

Some worry that pulling students out of school for quarantines this year will exacerbate achievement gaps, especially if even online instruction is not always available when needed. And even more so if schools are left with no option but to suspend classes entirely until they are able to open buildings again.

New restrictions are controversial

Districts must now carefully plan so they do not exceed the limited number of hours allotted for remote learning.

In both Missouri and Kansas, if entire districts are forced to shut down for extended periods, they could be required to make those lost days up. That could mean dipping into needed snow days or tacking on extra days at the end of the school year.

"With climate change, this may be the difficult winter we pray we don't have. So you don't want to use all of your tools and then find out we need the snow days," Smith said. "So it puts districts in a difficult position."

In Wellington — the first district in Kansas to shut down and grapple with these limited options — officials have added an extra 10 minutes to the end of each school day to comply with state guidelines for school hours.

Huff said Raytown officials have asked for guidance on the consequences of holding remote instruction in emergencies for longer than the 36 hours the state allows, but he said clear answers have been scarce.

There are many unknowns on the Kansas side, as well.

Jim Porter, chair of the Kansas State Board of Education, said that he believes schools need flexibility, and that the physical safety of students is more important than being in the classroom.

He wants the Kansas Legislature to reconsider the limits on remote learning. Ideally, he said, he would like Gov. Laura Kelly to call a special session to make that happen.

"If there's a surge of student infection for the unvaccinated ... then there's going to have to be action taken to protect those students," Porter said. "(The Legislature) would bear responsibility for that health issue."

The state board of education can grant districts waivers in a "disaster" to operate remotely for up to 240 hours. Porter said he believes COVID-19 qualifies as a disaster. But Rep. Kristey Williams, one of the primary lawmakers working on the bill, said a disaster declaration would need to be in place.

Sen. Molly Baumgardner, a Lousiburg Republican who also played a key role in drafting the bill, said what qualified as a disaster would be up to the board.

Tallman, with the Kansas Association of School Boards, said there is a lot of confusion over what districts can and can't do.

"The concern we hear is that while the Legislature was reacting to what they felt was remote used too extensively, in trying to block the very widespread use of the practice they've taken away some of the flexibility," Tallman said.

But state lawmakers who drafted the proposal say that plenty of flexibility has been afforded to schools and that keeping students physically in the building should be the top priority.

Williams said she's concerned students are falling behind and struggling mentally because of the long periods of time outside school buildings. The 40 hour option, and waiver for individual kids with medical conditions, Williams said, allows schools to use remote learning when they want to but prevents them from spending months online.

Williams said that schools are not prohibited from exceeding that time, they'll just have to adjust budgets for the loss of state dollars.

"(Students) need a normal life," Williams said. "The number one risk is their mental health."

"Right now it seems like this is our third school year of dealing with COVID-19. I don't think it is in our students' best interest today or yesterday to not have students in school."

But risking state funding is a gamble districts don't want to have to take. For now, most are doubling down on mitigation strategies. They're holding vaccine clinics for students and staff. They're ramping up contact tracing and testing. And they're trying to work with concerned parents.

Officials hope it'll be enough to avoid shutting down schools.

But some worry it won't be, and are urging state leaders to step in. And for many, it's personal — like for Porter. The state school board chairman has a high-risk granddaughter with a heart condition, who is not yet eligible for the vaccine and is taking in-person classes.

"It doesn't matter how well a person is educated if they're not alive," he said.

The Star's Jeanne Kuang contributed reporting.

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