Junction City, Kansas (USD 475 Geary County) re-opened school buildings in September after a summer of planning and a myriad of mitigation measures, from closing down water fountains to ensuring that students face in the same direction whenever possible—as well as making sure every school has a nurse or nurse clerk and putting in equipment to change the air in school buildings three times a day. “We tried to be smart,” says Deb Gustafson, executive director of student services.

Gustafson has become the COVID-19 coordinator for the district, in addition to her regular responsibilities—managing Title 1 funds, discipline, and the social and emotional welfare of students. One key, Gustafson says, was that the school district took over the job of contact tracing within the schools from the overloaded and underfunded local public health system. That allows a much quicker response, she said. For example, one Friday evening just as the dance team was preparing to perform at a football game, one of the dancers tested positive for coronavirus. She immediately called the team coach and sent team members home to quarantine. If the school had relied on public health authorities, Gustafson said, it might have been two or three days before the school system heard about the positive results, giving a lot more opportunity for viral spread.

Most of her career has been spent trying to make sure students were in school—it has been a wrench for Gustafson to tell students and their families that even if they seemed healthy they needed to stay home, she says.

But it is that kind of quick action that has allowed the schools to stay open.

“We started this whole process with two primary goals, she says. “One was that we wanted to put everything possible in place to keep our staff and our students and our parents safe. So, safety was number one. Mitigating this virus, mitigating this pandemic was activity number one. Goal number two was we wanted to stay in school. We did not want to keep schools closed.”

Gustafson worries about the students whose families have chosen to keep them remote. Although some students are thriving with on-line learning, many are not, she says. Still, “the preparation and the planning to reopen schools is incredible,” Gustafson says. “And managing the implementation is incredible. I understand districts are saying, ‘We don’t have anybody to do this.’”