By Adam Strunk
The Newton School District will remain in the yellow phase of its school attendance plan this week, but that result hung on what COVID-19 statistics the board of education decided to accept.
The board decided earlier that it would meet weekly and evaluate three sets of statistics to determine what the district’s attendance plan would be for the next week. The statistics include attendance levels, county case numbers and the percent of people taking COVID-19 tests who test positive.
However, board members brought up an issue at the special meeting they held Tuesday morning to determine the next week’s attendance plan: the state’s numbers didn’t match the county’s numbers in terms of the percent of COVID-19 positive tests occurring in the county.
“This is really troubling; they really need to get things together,” Board President Matt Treaster said of the county’s discrepancy with the state.
As written about at length in last week’s Harvey County Now, state and county numbers have differed significantly on statistics in recent months, with the state counting hundreds of more negative COVID-19 tests than the county.
The state was notified of the differences on Aug. 31, as Harvey County Now reached out to both the state and the county to ask about the differences. Both the state and county told the paper that the differences could have arisen from how and when they report the data.
At the meeting, Board Member Mallory Morton said she noticed the continued discrepancies and reached out to the the Kansas Department of Health and Environment.
She said she spoke with an epidemiologist at KDHE about the numbers, and that person was stumped.
Morton said the state then called her back, confirming discrepancies between what the county and state had reported in their numbers.
“A large piece of that is a percent positive, where a lot of times KDHE is reporting hundreds of tests more than what Harvey County is reporting,” she said.
She said the KDHE acknowledged the discrepancies and said when a discrepancy like that occurs, the district should use the state numbers.
“Two epidemiologists today tell me use the KDHE numbers,” she said. “When two epidemiologists tell me to use those numbers, that’s how I’m going to need to personally go today.”
Currently, the county says its two-week percent positive total is 10.2 percent.
Under the district’s plan and paired with the results of its other two gating criteria, that number sets the district in the yellow phase of its plan, which is on-site learning for grades K-6 and hybrid learning for grades 7-12.
However, the state’s listed positive percentage came out up to Sept. 6 was 8.45 percent according to KDHE statistics.
That would have meant that the district would be in its green stage and in full, on-site learning, should the district have taken the state’s numbers.
As discussion continued, Superintendent Fred Van Ranken noted that the county data did include a day’s more data, and if that day was removed, the difference in the two numbers would have been 0.6 percentage points, with the county showing 9.1 percent.
Board Member Jennifer Budde noted that she believed the county made data errors in the past.
“Clearly, the data points are important to us, affect thousands of students and teachers and we need to make sure they are accurate,” she said.
She said she didn’t want to micromanage the county and wanted to make sure the information was accurate. She said she was irritated about how Bethel testing numbers were counted and that the county did not count some negatives when coming up with its percent positive statistic.
Budde said if the county couldn’t figure out their discrepancies, they needed to move to KDHE data.
Newly minted Board member Andy Ortiz said he was curious why the data didn’t line up and that he planned on sending emails and setting up meetings to figure it out.
Treaster said he thought the district needed to leave it open and not box itself in to any particular data.
“I’m OK with leaving it today for yellow, but we’ve got to figure these things out,” he said. We’ve also got to give ourselves flexibility.”
Both Board Members Angela Becker and Luke Edwards noted that they didn’t want to change where the district was getting their gating criteria statistics at the meeting.
There was support amongst the board members to attempt to ascertain where the differences in statistics came from.
Van Ranken also gave a call to action on the issue.
“We really need to have Lynnette [Redington, Harvey County Health Department director] and/or Toby [Harkins, assistant director] at the board meeting and discuss the numbers and where the discrepancies lie and how we correct this,” he said.
He said the county needed the opportunity to explain the discrepancy before the district went a different route.
The board did vote 7-0 to go ahead with staying in phase yellow of its reopening plan as Van Ranken had earlier recommended.
Editor’s note: Adam Strunk usually does not cover the Newton Board of Education. Strunk, however, pitched in due to scheduling conflicts between the special BOE meeting held at 10 a.m. Tuesday and the regular county commission meeting held at 9 a.m. Tuesday.