Code yellow: School, fall sports set to start in USD 373

Chad Frey
Parents, athletes and students demonstrated in favor of having a fall sports season at the Newton Unified School District 373 Board of Education meeting Tuesday. The board was set to discuss gating criteria for the different levels of educational services -- in-school, online-only and hybrid modes of education for the 2020-21 school year against the backdrop of pandemic COVID-19.

With protesters outside advocating for fall sports to continue on in the face of COVID-19, captains of the football team addressed the Newton Unified School District 373 Board of Education on Tuesday. They did not want to lose the fall sports season to the COVID-19 pandemic, as Wichita schools have.

“We want to be part of the solution,” said Braden Botterweck, one of four captains of the football team. “We want to ensure the safety of everyone around us, while allowing us the opportunity to do what we love most — which is play football.”

Botterweck told the board of safety precautions the team has taken to deal with COVID-19, including wearing masks, sanitation of equipment, social distancing, hand sanitation and not sharing water bottles.

“Football has had a profound impact on my life,” Botterweck said. “I am sure of the same for my teammates. It has helped us be physically fit, work as a team and helps us learn to keep moving forward no matter what roadblocks are in our way.”

In Wichita USD 259, the plug was pulled on fall sports about a week ago.

However, that is not the action or the case for Newton USD 373. The gating criteria approved by the board of education leaves sports to compete, though it does put limitations on spectators — limiting the number of people that can attend games in one classification and only allowing online streaming of games in another. If the school district moves to remote — online-only — education, then activities that cannot be conducted online would be shut down.

The guidance document approved by the board also references KSHSAA and the AV-CTL, as well — either of those organizations could force stoppage of play for athletic programs. The document showed that if schools go remote only, then activities would be shuttered just as buildings are.

“If we are remote only, there are major problems,” Superintendent Fred Van Ranken said.

Earlier in the day Tuesday, KSHAA issued a statement, via Twitter, that “the fall activity season will continue as scheduled for those schools able to participate. The KSHSAA [Board of Directors] will meet Friday to discuss a plan for those schools that are unable to participate this fall.”

The proposed plan for schools not participating in the fall is to host spring/summer seasons for cross country, football, girls golf, gymnastics, boys soccer, girls tennis and volleyball. Those seasons would not feature state playoffs.

The AVCTL, of which Newton is a member, is moving forward with fall seasons — Newton has been selected to host a portion of a volleyball tournament this weekend.

Back to school

The board on Tuesday made a decision about the start of school. Using the gating criteria approved Tuesday, the board placed the district in a “yellow” category for Sept 3-11.

That means that students pre-kindergarten through sixth grade will be in school all day, every day. Grades seven through 12 will start school in a hybrid mode — students will be split into two groups, with each group in school buildings two days and remote (online) school for three days each week.

To place the district within a color column, the board looked at the county percentage of positive cases (12.4%), the county case trend-line data (down five cases over the evaluation period) and attendance (teachers in service at this point, student attendance will become a factor once school begins).

The gating criteria

The gating criteria approved on Tuesday used color-coded designations — green for on-site instruction, yellow for a mix of on-site and hybrid modes, orange for a mix of hybrid and remote-only and red for online-only school.

School districts statewide received guidance from the Kansas Department of Education on gating criteria about two weeks ago.

On Tuesday, the board was tasked with making several decisions about how a determination would be made on the mode of operation, including who would make the call, when to make the call and the criteria for making the decisions.

“We wanted to come up with an objective measure, rather than rely on someone’s opinion,“ Van Ranken said.

The consensus of the board was that the board would meet to make the determination on mode of education — members cited having that decision made during a public meeting, and a feeling of responsibility surrounding that decision.

“I think we do that ourselves, that is what we were elected to do,” Jennifer Budde said. “... These are major choices, and we need to be held accountable.”

“The decision will be hard sometimes, and in my mind, that is our responsibility,” Andy Ortiz said.

The board discussed whether the decision would be made every-other week, or weekly.

When the discussion of a flexible plan arose, the discussion was that the decision would be made on a weekly basis.

The consensus of the board was to meet to make a decision each week, on Mondays, for the following week. That meeting could be performed via Zoom, an online meeting-streaming service.

As the board reviewed the gating criteria, there was one spot that was problematic — a modified on-site designation for elementary-school students.

“When we got this from the state department of education, that was the first time we got that designation,” Van Ranken said.

That guidance was given Aug. 16.

The problem came from trying to put kids in class sizes of 15 or less, and that the district does not have the facilities or staff to make that happen.

“We cannot really do a modified on-site,” Van Ranken said. “Logistically, we cannot do it with our teaching staff. ... If we have cases and teachers go down, we really cannot do this. If we have one teacher sick in a building, it really goes down like dominoes.”

The board reached consensus to remove that designation, and have pre-K through sixth grade children on site for in-person classes under a yellow designation. Those students would be moved to hybrid under an orange designation and online-only at a red designation.

Special education

Special-education students are subject to Individualized Education Plans, which will play a role as to if a child is in school every day or not.

Teachers have been instructed to contact parents, starting with those who selected remote, to explain what that looks like and what remote-only looks like to ensure that is what they want to do, said Reagan Seidl, director of special education for USD 373.

What will govern those students is their IEP, if progress is being made according to the IEP, and state mandates for service. It is possible some special-education students will be in school even if schools are in a hybrid or remote-only mode based on the level of service a special-education student needs.

Seidl said parents are in control, and that decisions will be made on a case-by-case basis as the district changes modes of operation during the school year.

Braden Botterweck, one of the captains of the Newton High School football team, on Tuesday addresses the Newton USD 373 Board of Education.