253 10/13/21

USD 253 Emporia Public Schools will continue with universal masking after a discussion at Wednesday’s board of education meeting failed to generate enough support to warrant a motion overturning the controversial mandate.

After Superintendent Allison Anderson-Harder presented the district’s COVID Advisory Board’s recommendation to continue with the current mitigation strategies, board member Jeremy Dorsey said he felt it was nearing time to reexamine what the board was asking students and staff to do, particularly in secondary schools where kids are old enough to receive the vaccine.

“I also don’t feel like I’m at a point in this pandemic, personally, where I want to make decisions to protect people who make bad choices,” he said. “I don’t want to rage against the people who aren’t vaccinated. I share a lot of [board member Doug Epp’s] frustration. I don’t know what more you need to make a smart choice. It’s just medicine.”

Mike Crouch agreed with Dorsey, saying that “I think it’s time for us to follow the lead of our city and our county who have said, ‘We’re not going to be mandators anymore.’” While he said he is in favor of the vaccine and that he had received it himself, he expressed doubts about the efficacy of mask use.

However, no other board members were willing to consider any modification to the district’s universal masking policy.

Doug Epp and Grant Riles pointed to the number of cases and the vaccination rate in the community as reasons why they were hesitant to make any changes and Epp acknowledged that masks have had a beneficial impact on minimizing cases in the schools.

“If it’s working, then why change it?” Epp said.

Leslie Seeley said she felt uncomfortable going against the educated recommendations of the COVID Advisory Board.

Art Gutierrez said masks were a means to end, which was keeping students in school.

“Our focus needs to be on keeping our kids in school,” he said. “We just got a report with our FastBridge testing that our kids are struggling academically and I think that pulling back from the masks is one way to lose some of that class time that we’ve gotten with using the masks, so I would not be in favor of changing what we’re currently doing.”

In other business, the school board approved a memorandum of understanding regarding the terminology of the illness pool definition and the district’s monthly health insurance payments as recommended by the interest-based bargaining COVID sub-committee.

The MOU allows the definition of “extraordinary circumstance” to include COVID-related events. It also stipulates that approval of illness pool applications will be left up to the discretion of the Illness Pool Committee and applies to both administration and classified staff as well as those certified staff who are covered by the illness pool’s master agreement.

Additionally, the MOU includes an increase to the district’s paid health insurance fringe from $402 to $450, thus decreasing some of the burden on district employees. Assistant Superintendent Rob Scheib said the forfeiture amount to the district would be $286,000 and that negotiations were still ongoing.

Board members acknowledged that the insurance situation was still “a mess” (according to Crouch) and “awful” (according to Seeley) and that they intend to keep working to mitigate the hardship on district staff.

“We just need people to know that we all know how bad this is and something has to change,” Seeley said.

The board also approved a request to use most of the district’s remaining $1.1 million in Elementary and Secondary School Emergency Relief (ESSER II) funds to provide premium pay to district staff.

There will be two payments to staff who meet the eligibility requirements. The first payment will be doled out to certified and classified employees on March 15, 2022, and to administrative staff on April 2, 2022.

Under the first phase, those actively employed with the district from Nov. 10, 2021-Feb. 23, 2022, will receive $500, with classified staff working less than 20 hours a week receiving $250. Employees who were hired after Nov. 10 will receive $200 while certified staff working less than 20 hours a week who were hired after Nov. 10 will receive $100.

Certified and classified staff will receive the second payment on June 15, 2022, with administrators receiving it on July 1, 2022. The amounts are the same for the dates Feb. 24, 2022, through the last day of school.

Ryan Karjala, Associate Executive Director of Assessment and Accountability, and Judy Stanley, Interim Executive Director of Teaching and Learning, provided an academic report based upon FastBridge assessments. Their report showed that significant percentages of students at both the elementary and secondary levels were at some risk or high risk in the areas of reading and math.

“It looks like 50% of our kids need strategists and that should not be what our data reflects, so we know we need to do a deep dive, we need to be looking at resources, have some additional training,” Stanley said.

Stanley added that a lack of continuity in instructional resources and methods from grade level to grade level could be a contributor to the figures.

“It’s a matter of looking at a resource, identifying something that we can be true to as well as identifying what can we give some teachers some freedom with so that we make sure we are keeping this evidence-based practice in place,” she said.

Crouch said he found the numbers “alarming” and that solutions “should be on the forefront of the board’s mind over the next several months.”

“Every year we don’t make changes, kids lose a year,” he said.

The next school board meeting will be at 7 p.m. on Wednesday, Oct. 27.

The school board also:

Approved “Bumblebees” as the new mascot for the Jones Early Childhood Development Center.

Received a construction update from Eric Woltje of McCownGordon.

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