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While county COVID-19 cases at record high, USD 501 sees ‘window of opportunity’ for in-person learning



TOPEKA, Kan. – Topeka Unified School District 501 is taking advantage of a window of opportunity for in-person learning ahead of a possible, if not likely, return to remote learning later in January in the wake of soaring COVID-19 rates.

Speaking to the Topeka Board of Education on Thursday evening, superintendent Tiffany Anderson said the district has seen low COVID-19 case rates among its students and staff in the week leading up to Monday, which marked students’ return to in-person learning after having been in remote learning since mid-November.

Nineteen students and 21 staffers tested positive for COVID-19 over New Years week, although those cases almost certainly came from transmission outside of school, since district schools had closed for the holiday break on Dec. 23.

But cases remained high in the general community, and earlier Thursday afternoon, the Shawnee County Health Department reported that Wednesday’s cases, at 233 new cases, marked the county’s highest number of daily cases since the pandemic first disrupted local operations nearly ten months ago. The county’s COVID-19 scorecard likewise maxed out at a 24 out of 24 rating, or at the top of the red zone, for the severity of the pandemic.

Anderson said projections show local COVID-19 spread will likely remain high through January and February. She said that had the district not made a decision in late December to start the semester in in-person learning, she imagined the district would not have opened at all until the end of February, possibly even through spring break in March.

This week, then, and next week are a “window of opportunity,” Anderson said, for the district to bring students into schools, replenish any supplies or instructional materials and address any social-emotional needs ahead of a potential return to remote learning.

Although no vote was taken on the district’s learning status, the school board implicitly signed off on Anderson’s request to remain in in-person learning, despite the county scorecard being in red, so long as the district’s own scorecard continues to show low COVID-19 case rates in schools.

Some school board members said they remained concerned with high county case rates, although they understood the need for some in-person learning, encouraging teachers to take advantage of in-person learning at the moment.

“Let’s make this powerful until we can’t,” board member Sue Bolley said.

Principals from various USD 501 schools spoke with the board, updating them on the first week of the return to in-person learning. Because the district pushed the start of its school year back a couple of weeks into September, students are still technically finishing the fall semester.

Topeka High principal Rebecca Morrisey said students have been enthusiastic to return to some form of in-person learning. Unlike the elementary schools in full-time in-person learning, the district’s middle and high schools have split their students into groups in which half of students attend in-person classes in the mornings while the other half of students attend remote classes. The groups then switch at lunch.

Morrisey said the number of Topeka High students with a grade of F was 7% higher compared to last year, although she did not indicate the specific number or percentage. She said, however, that teachers have been better able to address those students’ needs now that they are back in in-person learning.

For the entire fall semester, Shawnee County Health Department officials said they have seen no data to suggest COVID-19 transmission has occurred in schools, although most local districts moved to remote learning as county case rates increased throughout the semester and resulted in quarantines for students and staff regardless.

District officials will continue to monitor the COVID-19 situation, and Anderson said the district could make a decision to return to remote learning next Thursday ahead of the Martin Luther King, Jr., school holiday.