PITTSBURG, Kan. — Mitigating COVID-19 has dominated the priorities of 2020-2021 school year for every educator, administrator and student. It’s affected how classrooms run, how sports are played and how many students attend in-person classes.
For the most part, Pittsburg Community Schools (USD 250) has done a fair job at minimizing the spread within schools, while still making sure as many students as possible can remain in class. However, a rising number of infected and quarantined teachers within the district has caused the school board and administrators to start rethinking their approach.
“I think we can say for the most part we are not seeing any person-to-person transmission in classrooms, but we also knew that we were going to have to watch very carefully because we might have to make decisions based on if certain groups were going to start to get affected,” said PCS Superintendent Richard Proffitt.
Proffitt announced at the monthly PCS Board of Education meeting that a “rapid” rise in cases among teachers is worrying, not just because of concerns over community spread, but also because the district does not have enough substitute teachers to cover for the now quarantined teachers.
“Strictly from that standpoint when you don’t have that you are going to start packing more kids into smaller spaces which is contrary to mitigation practices that we are following,” said Proffitt. “We have some decisions that we are going to have to make in one and or more buildings about what we will do.”
Proffitt said he and the board members knew this issue was a possibility from the start and are willing to do what needs to be done.
“That’s always been a possibility from the beginning,” School Board Member Marlene Willis said. “We’ll have to do what we need to do because we can’t teach kids if we don’t have enough staff.”
As of right now, there are no concrete plans from the district about what changes will need to be made to the mitigation strategies, but Proffitt said a big possibility is going fully remote for a bit, however he said it would only be for certain buildings, not the whole district.
“We may have to look at going remote in a single building, if not more, for a time period,” Proffitt said.
Overall, the board and district officials said they need to do what is best for the health and safety of the students.
“We have to ensure that we are going to be able to have kids in a safe and healthy environment,” Proffitt said. “Part of that safe environment means not only is it a healthy environment, but it's also an environment in which they are supervised by a qualified individual.”
While Proffitt said that the lack of available teachers was an issue affecting multiple buildings and grade levels, he declined to give concrete numbers or the names of buildings facing this issue at the time of the meeting.
“That will not be released until later” Proffitt said. “Because that will start identifying people.”
However, the next day the district updated its data to include some of the numbers. The district’s website has a list with the number of cases and/or exposures and in what building the exposure or positive case occurred. The list dates back to the beginning of the school year, Aug. 26.
Since the beginning of the year—and up until Nov. 7— 23 staff members have tested positive for COVID-19 throughout the district with the largest number of cases coming from Lakeside, Meadowlark and Westside elementary schools. It is not specified on the website whether those are teachers or other staff members in the buildings. It is also not entirely clear why the district is considering the latest increase in COVID-19 cases to be such a dramatic change, because as of Nov. 10, it was only listing one additional staff member as having tested positive for COVID-19 and two as having "high-risk contact", although it could be because those staff members are teachers and others have not been.
“Even one staff member being out is a stress on us,” Elishia Seals, public information director for the district, said.
The list by the district includes the number of teachers exposed and therefore most likely required to quarantine after exposure, which has largely affecting high school and middle school staff. Proffitt said it is important to note, however, that while staff have been testing positive and exposed to COVID-19, the vast majority are not due to in-school exposure, but out-of-school exposure.
Earlier in the year, KDHE identified George Nettels Elementary School as a COVID-19 cluster with nine positive cases within 14 days, but district officials disputed that designation.
Seals said that the data from KDHE was “not an accurate number.”
“George Nettels has had 4 positive cases in the past 14 days, all outside of school exposure,” Seals said in a September email to the Morning Sun. “This is not considered a cluster or outbreak.”
As of Nov. 10, KDHE did not have any PCS schools on its cluster list.