By Jared Janzen
HALSTEAD—Less than a month into the school year, the Halstead-Bentley School District has had nearly as many positive cases of COVID-19 as it did all of last year combined.
That was the news Superintendent Dr. Ron Barry reported to the board of education Monday night. Last year, the district totaled 50 cases, and already this fall, it is at 41. The numbers for this year break down to 22 cases at the high school, 17 at the middle school and two at the primary school.
“We’re definitely feeling the positive cases,” Dr. Barry said. “We have more positive cases, which causes more exposures or quarantines. In three-and-a-half weeks, we’re almost at the point to where we’ve exceeded all of last year.”
He added that a lot more of those exposures seem to be happening at school than at home, compared to last year.
Dr. Barry said his number one goal is keeping school operating, and so the district created a new set of gating criteria to inform when health and safety restrictions need to be increased.
The primary gating criteria focuses on what is happening inside each school building. It looks at the number of COVID-related absences, number of positive cases among students and staff and number of quarantined students.
Each building will use this gating criteria independently, so it would be possible, for example, for the high school to move to yellow while the middle and primary schools are still green.
“One building may not be impacted as much, and an entire protocol system that would impact every single building in the district may not always be the best case,” Dr. Barry said.
Secondary gating criteria looks at what is happening around the community and Harvey County. It evaluates county positivity rate, county active cases, county two-week trend and county hospitalizations.
A school will change its color designation if two of the three primary gating criteria are met. If three of the four secondary gating criteria are met, the entire district would shift.
The yellow protocol includes a mask requirement when six feet of social distancing can’t be maintained. Social distancing will be used when possible. Visitors will be required to wear masks. Indoor spectator events will call for physical distancing, masks and possible capacity considerations.
The orange protocol will require masks for all students and staff, except during P.E. or athletic activities. Social distancing will be used at all times, and no visitors will be allowed during the school day. Capacity will be limited for indoor spectator events and masks required.
“There’s two things we feel we can control the most, and that’s space and mask-wearing,” Dr. Barry said.
Data will be evaluated every Friday to determine if any or every building in the district needs to change its COVID protocols for the following week. If the gating criteria dictates, those buildings would automatically switch protocols the following Monday without any special school board meeting.
“We wanted to find a way to help mitigate, help increase layers, help get to the point where we’re not like these other schools that are shutting down for an entire week and adding minutes to their day, because ultimately, our kids need to be in our buildings. […] This is our way to respond, to stay ahead of the virus as it continues to absorb its way into the district.”
Board members had numerous questions about the new COVID gating criteria and protocols.
Joel Flory asked if the county health department was open to input from superintendents on things like quarantine requirements. Dr. Barry said he had conversations with the health department, but his suggestion for the health department to have a joint meeting with all the superintendents of Harvey County hasn’t been followed through on yet.
“The county takes a lot of their guidance from the state and, at this point in time, is not willing to adjust on that guidance like some counties are,” Dr. Barry said. “When you get into that, you get into a lot of politics and other issues that are out of our control, and that’s why I try to maintain my focus on what we have here in Harvey County.”
Tim Boese said if the health department wasn’t willing to consider adjusting its quarantine protocol, some of these extra measures felt like non-starters.
“If they’re not going to even look at modifying their quarantine protocol, why are we going to do these things, other than we may reduce our cases by a couple,” he said.
Dr. Barry said the extra measures could help prevent a few cases. He added the district is in a spike right now and will have to see how trends play out the rest of the year.
Joy Hoofer pointed out that parents of younger kids are the primary decision-makers and will likely keep their student home if he or she is unwell, whereas high schoolers are more independent and more likely to have extracurricular activities disrupted if they miss school. She suggested coaches, staff and student leaders emphasize to students the importance of staying home when they’re sick.
Jennifer Brantley countered that high-school students are telling their peers not to tell anybody if they feel sick. Hoofer said staff and student leaders should try to shift that mentality.
Board members also had questions about the test-to-stay/test-to-play guidance that would have students who have been exposed to COVID get tested daily before school. Parents would have to wait for the test result so they could take their student home if the test comes back positive. If the test is negative, the student could attend class but must wear a mask and social distance.
“There have been instances we’ve seen locally where someone has tested negative, the symptoms got worse, and two days later, they tested again and were positive,” Dr. Barry said.
Dr. Barry added there were no perfect solutions, because if you try to fix one problem, another appears. He compared the situation to a teeter-totter or like trying to plug a hole in a dam, only for another hole to appear.
The board ultimately approved the gating criteria and protocols in a 5-2 vote, with Tim Boese and Joel Flory opposed.
In other business, the board:
•held a public hearing on its 2022 budget and intention to exceed the revenue neutral rate. No members of the public spoke at the hearing, and the board then voted to accept the proposed budget.
•heard from sophomore Dominque Schutte about the Twitter page, Eye of the Dragon, that she’s created to promote Halstead sports. Schutte told the board she is interested in a career in sportscasting and has been posting photos, videos and scores of sporting events online.
Board members were complimentary of Schutte’s initiative. Joy Hoofer congratulated her on living out her passion, and Jennifer Brantley said the quality was impressive.
“I may have to get Twitter now,” Shawn Kohr quipped.
•heard from Athletic Director Nick Barnes that senior Riley Smith was recognized by KSHSAA as its Covered Capitol Federal True Blue Student of the Week for the week of Sept. 13. This is a new award this fall to recognize students for non-athletic achievements. Smith has been instrumental in creating and maintaining the video streaming service for Halstead basketball and football games over the past year.
•heard about a new KSHSAA rule that went into effect Sept. 3 regarding if an athlete tests positive for COVID-19. After they are well again, they must be cleared with a doctor’s note and then undergo a six-day transition period before they may return to full activity.
•heard from primary school principal Adam Conard that he received the worst news of his educational career earlier that day—that crispito day was canceled this week. He said the food supplier was having a tortilla shortage, and he didn’t expect the popular crispitos to be back on the menu until January. The news was met with a wave of nostalgia by board members.
“That was the only meal I’d ever eat in school,” Board Member Joel Flory said.
•discussed its lease of school land to a cell phone tower management company. The company requested a renegotiation of the contract because it is having a hard time finding other companies to use the tower besides Verizon. They gave four options, three of which asked for a perpetual easement for the tower, which Dr. Barry said he didn’t recommend. The other option asked for a $150 reduction in monthly rent, which would put the payment down to $500.
“I have a hard time seeing how $150 is going to make or break them in the grand scheme of their business model,” Kohr said. “I’d like to sit on it a month.”
Boese suggested having legal counsel look over the contract. The lease began in 2012, and the last time it was renegotiated was February of 2019. Board members questioned whether it was appropriate for the company to ask for a renegotiation so soon, given the terms of the lease. The company does have the right to change the lease up to five times over its term.
The board agreed to maybe hold a virtual special meeting later this month to discuss the cell phone tower lease again so they can get an answer back to the management company promptly.
•held a 15-minute executive session to discuss non-elected personnel. Afterward, it hired Ashlyn Watson for food service, Becky Thompson for the after-school program and Jordan Soward as CNA. It also accepted the resignation of Jordan Pease as preschool para and approved a contract amendment for Dr. Barry with additional vacation days and an adjustment for fringe benefits.