USD-440 remains ‘green’ but adds new restrictions

By Jared Janzen

HALSTEAD—The Halstead-Bentley Board of Education elected to remain in its “green” learning model during a special meeting Thursday night but will still impose some tighter restrictions to prevent the spread of COVID-19.

Superintendent Dr. Ron Barry had come to the meeting with the recommendation that the district switch to the “yellow” model based on recent trends of case data in Harvey County. Both green and yellow models have students learning in-person, while orange signifies hybrid learning and red is remote.

“We understand that the county is increasing, and [the school board] was concerned about that trend, but they said that with the current data, they would like to see us apply all of our moderate restrictions before we potentially go into yellow, and also ensure that we are 100 percent ready whenever we do go to yellow to make that transition,” Dr. Barry said after the meeting.

Data that Dr. Barry presented to the board showed the warning levels that each of the district’s gating criteria were in. Harvey County had 82 active cases, which is just high enough to be coded red. The county’s positivity rate was at 9.91 and the two-week trend was on the rise, so both of these factors coded yellow by the district.

The district’s absenteeism rate is coded green since less than 3 percent of students and staff are absent due to COVID-19. As of Thursday, one person was absent. The total for the school year is three.

“Our absenteeism is really good, and we’re doing a really good job with that,” Dr. Barry said. “

Dr. Barry noted that even though there are a number of active clusters in Harvey County, these are at places like Bethel and Hesston College—not in Halstead. He said if absenteeism were higher in Halstead/Bentley schools, it would have been a more clear-cut decision to switch to yellow.

It was this fact that absenteeism is low within the district that ultimately led the board to vote 6-0 to remain in “green” while also increasing some moderate restrictions.

Of the district’s list of moderate restrictions, Dr. Barry estimated they had already been doing 50 to 60 percent of them. Additional restrictions for next week include staggering access to lockers and passing periods. Students will be limited in how much time they can spend in the commons and must space out when there. Seating will be assigned in lunchrooms for buildings that weren’t already doing so.

Assigned seating will make contact tracing easier and will help limit the number of students who may need to quarantine if one of their classmates tests positive.

Middle school electives normally taught at the high school will be taught at the middle school, and high schoolers won’t be going to other buildings either. Dismissals will be staggered at the middle school and potentially at the high school as well.

Teachers will limit eating with their peers and the number of them in their work rooms. Visitors will only be allowed if they pertain to a student service or student need, like an IEP meeting.

Social distancing will be required at athletic or co-curricular events.If the district were to move to yellow, it would start looking at limiting attendance at extracurricular activities, Dr. Barry said.

“This kind of gives us a buffer of making sure they social distance versus limiting, once we get into yellow,” he said. “And I think that was the main reason the board wanted to say can we exhaust all the things that we haven’t done yet before we really take a large step in having some big limitations for the students, staff and families.”

The new restrictions are aimed at keeping the number of active cases in Halstead/Bentley schools low.

“We hope to do the best we can to promote everyone doing their part in keeping those numbers low so we can continue to operate as best we can in the green zone because we know it’s the best learning environment. That’s for sure,” Dr. Barry said.

He commended students and staff for their efforts so far in keeping others safe.

“Our staff has been doing an amazing job, and our students have been doing an amazing job,” Dr. Barry said. “Without their help, without their leadership and ability to be flexible and adjust and change the way they do things yet still operate with the ability to really—they’re trying their best to positively impact students’ learning, just like they would have last year at this time.”

The board will have its next regularly scheduled meeting on Nov. 9, and Barry said they could review the data then again and reevaluate whether the district should switch to yellow.

“I hope the data flattens out and continues to decrease, but only time will tell with this stuff,” he said.