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Emporia Public Schools Board of Education members unanimously approved a shift to Phase 2 of the district’s hybrid learning model for grade 6-12 students Wednesday evening, paving the way for increased in-person instruction in such buildings beginning Sept. 30.

The decision required board members to reevaluate previously accepted gating criteria, which — based on metrics of two-week county positive rates, two-week cumulative incidence rates and two week incidence trends — suggested USD 253 shift into its “orange” category, requiring secondary education students to remain on a remote learning model and cancelling all extracurricular activities that could not be performed remotely.

Board and district COVID-19 advisory council member Jeremy Dorsey said that while he agreed gating criteria and metrics could be a useful tool for the district to utilize moving forward, the council had continually heard a distinct need to get students back in the classroom, not just from parents and guardians, but from teachers, faculty and Public Health staff, as well.

“On the advisory committee, there was not a single voice that said we should not go into Phase 2, or that we should retract,” he said. “No one said we should shut more buildings down or anything to that effect. The consensus was that we should move forward, and that was in conjunction with Lyon County Public Health Emergency Preparedness Director Jennifer Millbern who was with us at those meetings going over data.

Specific details are still pending a release from the district, but secondary education students are expected to be able to attend classes on a weekly basis, at minimum. In the meantime, PK-5 students will remain on the district’s current parent-choice model.

As an additional element of the motion, board members agreed to allow Superintendent Kevin Case the power to make individual, building-based decisions utilizing input from Lyon County Public Health without a formal vote.

A more detailed look into the district’s gating criteria can be found at www.emporiagazette.com/free/article_a8bc025c-f9dd-11ea-8e07-77b4a1099b22.html.

“The issue with the gating criteria that we previously adopted that we’re seeing here tonight is that two folks are reading it one way, another is reading it some other way, and somebody else may have another perspective,” Dorsey said. “I think we start to kind of divine what we maybe want the data to say or not to say, and that doesn’t work out so well.

“Right now, I can’t be in support of retracting and sending kids home, saying you have to stay home longer and shutting activities down because I don’t think the reality on the ground in terms of disease exposure, spread and incidents at the schools justify that. That would be a tough sell for the community, I think.”

Barring any unexpected changes in phase for specific schools on the part of Public Health staff, the Board of Education expects to formally revisit the gating issue on a district-wide basis on Oct. 28, with an additional reevaluation set for Nov. 23.

The latest district case information can be found on the USD 253 COVID-19 dashboard at www.usd253.org/dashboard.

“We know this is not perfect,” Case said. “We continue to hear how things are different and we continue to hear all the people that really just want things to return to normal … I think we’re a ways away from that. It’s about acknowledging that and moving forward.”

During the meeting, the Board of Education also:

Accepted a guaranteed maximum price for the construction of the district’s new Early Childhood Center at 327 W. Walnut St. from McCownGordon Construction in the amount of $10,675,455. The board also agreed to allow the Build for the Future Executive Committee to apply for funds up to the maximum master budget value of $13,381,584.

Approved a memorandum of understanding allowing teachers the ability to teach remotely during the 2020-21 school year

Approved the purchase of a new walk-in chiller for Walnut Elementary School in the amount of $47,480.

Approved a $70,000 donation from The First United Methodist Church to be used for the funding of multicultural education.

Approved a lease extension agreement with Flint Hills Mall LLC for 2020-21 in the amount of $34,014 per year, the same as last year.

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