The Emporia Public Schools Board of Education voted 4-3 to move to Step 3 of the district’s COVID-19 learning plan during a regularly-scheduled meeting, Wednesday evening.
The move — which will take effect Nov. 9 — entails increasing building populations at Emporia High School and Emporia Middle School from 25% to 50%, as well as allowing students to attend in-person classes twice a week instead of once. Students requiring specialized education services will still attend daily classes, and K-5 students will continue their current schedules with no changes.
The decision to advance phases was made after Superintendent Kevin Case recommended the board continue utilizing Step 2 based on input he had received from the USD 253 COVID-19 Advisory Committee. He said the committee came to its decision using metrics such as two-week testing positivity rates and new case incidence rates, among other trends.
“Our recommendation as a committee and my recommendation is that the community data and trends do not support moving to Step 3,” Case said. “That’s the belief of the committee … We polled the whole committee and that’s where we were at. Our recommendation is also to stay in [Step] 2 for now, and reevaluate in two weeks.”
Board members Mike Crouch, Leslie Seeley, Jeremy Dorsey and Art Gutierrez voted to approve the move to Phase 3 while Doug Epp, Grant Riles and Melissa Ogleby voted against the switch.
“I’d love to have kids come back to school in greater numbers … but the numbers don’t support it,” Epp said. “I said at the very beginning that I was going to be running based on the data. If my decision is still going to be based on data, the data I’m seeing is that our percent positivity [rate] is not good, and it’s trending upwards. We have total community spread. [The virus] is not isolated at one place like our nursing facilities, and so on. We don’t just have an isolated group at a plant or something like that, it’s just out in the community. That’s the scariest thing for me is that you don’t know where it’s coming from.”
Board members in favor of the move said they had heard parents express a defined desire to get students back into schools, saying the move to Phase 3 could also be rolled back as simply as it was instituted should a rise in cases occur.
“We have some data from other school districts that are our size … there are counties that have a higher positivity rate and a higher number of cases, but they’re doing 50% [building populations],” Gutierrez said. “That’s what makes it really hard for me to be against having more kids in school. If you take the number of students and staff we have in the building and the number of positives we have on the [USD 253 COVID-19] dashboard, it’s like .004%.
“I understand that the community rate is troubling, but I’ve been really surprised that the county rate is kind of varying and going up, but our schools are still maintaining [the same rates]. I think we owe it to our kids to try this out.”
In other business Wednesday, USD 253 Associate Executive Director of Assessments and Accountability Ryan Karjala presented board members with an annual headcount report. The report confirmed the trend of the district’s initial estimates, showing a decrease of 356 students (to 4,326 in total) compared to the previous academic year.
“That [headcount] is an unaudited number...” Karjala said. “Our audit is going on right now … [but] we have a downward trend.”
Karjala said a decreased K-5 population could be attributed to a couple of factors related to the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic.
“Parents are not wanting to bring their kids to preschool; they’ll just keep them home,” Karjala said. “The other thing [causing a decline in enrollment] was the size requirements of the classes, having to have smaller classes and reducing their size.”
Enrollment numbers were steadier among the district’s grade 6-12 populations, especially at Emporia High School, which saw a decrease of only 16 students.
“We lost quite a bit at the elementary level,” Karjala said. “We also lost a lot of the non-graded, adult students.”
During the meeting, the Emporia Public Schools Board of Education also:
Accepted a guaranteed maximum price for renovations to Emporia High School from McCownGordon Construction in the amount of $17,613,376. The planned updates were included as part of the district’s recently-passed bond issue.
Approved participation in the 2020 National Clean Diesel Rebate Program School Bus Replacement and Retrofit Funding Opportunity. The district received $40,000 in three of the last four years’ programs and was able to use the money to offset a portion of the cost of purchasing new buses. If USD 253 receives a rebate again this year, the board will review the purchase of two additional buses.
Accepted a $950 donation from the Emporia Community Foundation for the funding of STEAM education at Village Elementary.