The Garden City USD 457 Board of Education approved three changes to the district’s COVID-19 Response Plan at the board’s regular meeting Monday.


The changes and updates are in regards to concerts, playground use and before and after school clubs at operational Level 4.


Prior to the changes, concerts, playground use and before- and after-school clubs were not permitted.


The changes allow for playground use via a classroom rotation schedule, before- and after-school clubs are permitted with social distancing and masks, and concerts are allowed to be held with a maximum attendance of 35% of location capacity and the ability to social distance.


Dr. Lindsay Byrnes, Finney County medical director, spoke at the meeting cautioning against relaxing the restrictions due to a high increase in COVID-19 cases within the community and region.


Byrnes urged the board to not allow concerts and winter sports to be held at this time because of the community spread. Health officials are now seeing spread outside of households.


"It is essential for people to start taking really aggressive measures, mask wearing," she said. "What we need to really think about is what our behavior patterns are."


Garden City is not the only community that needs to have that conversation, Byrnes said, as this is going on across the state. She said people need to realize the danger of gatherings.


"I know it's really hard to consider your senior missing a basketball season, but it's also really a life-changing thing to lose their parents," she said. "I am happy that so many people don't see the reality of this and aren't dealing with this and aren't seeing (what I am), but please understand we are in a bad situation and it is getting worse."


Colleen Drees, Finney County Health Department director, shared data on COVID-19 within the community over the past four weeks at the meeting.


At the beginning of October, from Oct. 4-10, there were a total of 156 positive cases with a positivity rate of 17%, a 4% increase from the previous week.


However, by the following week, Oct. 11-17, the numbers made a drastic jump, Drees said. That week there were 201 positive cases with a positivity rate of 23% and hospitalization averaged about 13-15.


Then from Oct. 18-24 the positivity rate increased from 23% to 31%, with over 200 positive cases, with some still pending. Hospitalizations averaged between 15 and 20.


Deaths also increased, Drees said. The first death in Finney County was recorded on April 14, there were seven in May, two in June and two in August, but now there have been six in October.


The increases are concerning, Drees said.


"We would really like to do everything in our power to help continue to promote proactive behaviors and cautionary items — wash your hands, socially distance and, most importantly, wear a mask," she said.


Byrnes said the district has had a good run keeping students in school and has achieved more than many other districts, but it needs to consider the risk of making the changes to the plan as they can affect the entire community and region.


It’s possible that concerts, sporting events and using playground equipment could increase the spread of COVID-19, Byrnes said.


"If our ultimate goal is to keep kids in the classroom in the safest way we can, we have to be really serious about what our priorities are and what risks we're willing to take and what mitigation measures we are absolutely capable of," she said.


As of Oct. 26, there have been 70 students who have tested positive, USD 457 superintendent Steve Karlin said. Of those 70 students, 80%-90% of the transmission happened outside of school.


There were two competing principles at the meeting Monday, Karlin said, one is to be consistent across grade levels in the plan and the need for the district to be as careful as possible in regards to COVID-19.


The recommended plan changes come from an effort to be consistent at all operational levels, but also consistent with the data collected that there haven’t been many school transmissions, Karlin said.


The community needs to help mitigate the spread of COVID-19 to keep schools open, Karlin said.


"Staff has been dedicated and have worked incredibly hard to (keep schools open), but if this spread continues to grow like it has been over the last three weeks, there's a limit to how much longer we're going to be able to do that and keep a face-to-face model for schools," he said.


The district’s way to mitigate the spread is to move from Level 4 to Level 5, which is a hybrid approach, or Level 6, which is fully remote, Karlin said. Changing to those levels will have a large ripple effect across the community.


"I think the point I really hope our community will understand is if we want to keep kids in school, face to face, if we don't want to go to Level 5 or Level 6, we are all going to have to work on this together," he said.