When I heard the Independence School District was heading back to school Aug. 24 and our friends to the east, Blue Springs Schools, would also be back in the classroom, my mind likely went to the same place many of ours did: “OK, so, how long until their first outbreak and they are back at home?”
Somewhat shockingly, that hasn’t happened yet. And it may not at all this fall semester.
The school district that raised me, Independence, is led by an unapologetic leader, Dr. Dale Herl, who, seemingly this entire time, has taken the stance that they will be back in school and the chips will fall where they may.
And so far, the chips are in ISDs favor.
According to their district dashboard (a function Lee’s Summit has yet to enact), Independence has seen three individual cases in three different elementary schools and one case in one of two early childhood centers. And the math doesn’t lie: that’s 0.03 percent active cases. When you figure in those who have had to quarantine due to the positive cases, that number skyrockets to 0.14 percent.
My former elementary, Spring Branch, is one of many grade schools back in full session (ISD has sent kids K-5 back to the classroom and according to Jana Corrie, the district director of public relations, 70 percent of parents opted for in-person) with zero reported cases among students, teachers and staff. From grades 6-12, ISD has their students on a hybrid, A/B model, one week on/one week virtual.
The numbers in Blue Springs are slightly higher, but not remotely alarming. BSSD’s director of PR, Katie Woolf, reports just six cases since the first day of school (Sept. 8) in their 22 buildings. Blue Springs is led by a superintendent who has seen it all in public education, Dr. Paul Kinder. Kinder and his board opted for 100 percent in-person education or “Distance Learners” and are offering no hybrid option at this point. Seventy-eight percent of BSSD students are in the classrooms each day right now.
This is the same school district that filed suit against Jackson County, Missouri over its seemingly unmethodical system of determining spectator counts, specifically at high school football games. The District had allowed over 400 at its opening night game in August, a move that was subsequently met by much ire from county health officials, who threatened to pull concession licenses and ban all fans for the remainder of the season.
For the record, the district, through Woolf, has said it is “undecided” if it is moving forward with the lawsuit after a judge denied a temporary order last week to allow additional spectators.
It’s one in a long line of county moves that leave many of us shaking our heads about the rhyme and reasoning behind anything it's doing. Couple that with County Executive Frank White’s outlandish statements accusing Blue Springs of tearing away resources to fight a lawsuit, and we’re left pondering (as we often do) if we have the right people in place to run Jackson County.
(Spoiler alert: we don’t.)
County shenanigans aside, you simply cannot ignore, from a mental health, physical health and welfare standpoint, the success both school districts have seen since starting in-person classes over the last few weeks.
And while we often find ourselves in athletic and academic competition with our neighbors to the north and east, this could be a situation where we ask Drs. Herl and Kinder just what is working, how their plans came into focus and what the coming weeks and months look like, educationally, instructionally and from staffing and student standpoints.
Lee’s Summit R-7 has a gigantic risk/reward proposition ahead of it: balancing returning too soon with a constant media barrage that will come if, as the board of education said it would, we evaluate cases and county statistics every two weeks and continue to determine we cannot teach students in person.
While our district has upped its PR game in 2020, we still are not nearly as deft as neighboring districts in controlling the message and handling the media. Unless we have a firm media plan in place, publicly telling parents, teachers, staff and community stakeholders every 14 days that we are not “ready” to return to the classroom sounds like a fantastically terrible idea.
As of Sept. 14, LSR7 has had three cases, which triggered what the district calls “general awareness notifications” to go out to those affected. One case was at Lee’s Summit North; the other two were associated with Lee’s Summit West athletics. If the numbers and research reasonably tell us we’re not ready for K-12 in-person or hybrid options, please be ready to tell us why and what we need to be doing as a community to help move that needle.
Lead from up front, LSR7.