Protestors who gathered prior to the Nov. 9 school board meeting were told police were being called, and they needed to disperse. Steve Benz, GPD pubic information officer, said a a call was received but there were no arrests or interactions. Protestors moved a few feet to allow entry to the doors. Patrons had been asked to remain in their cars until summoned and escorted inside to speak. Photos courtesy of Lynne Hermansen
Special to The Gardner News
Close to 60 parents and students protested outside the Gardner Edgerton School Board building Nov. 9 prior the USD 231 board meeting. Parents wishing to address the board had been told to wait in their vehicles in the parking lot..
The crowd held signs and peacefully demonstrated their opposition to remote school for Gardner middle school and high school students.
The students have been remote since last Spring when the State of Kansas originally shut down all schools in the state. K-5 elementary students returned to school in person in September.
Michela Chrisjohn, Gardner Edgerton High School Freshman, said online school was stressful and effecting her mental health.
“I’m losing lots of sleep because it is so hard keeping up,” she said.
Chrisjohn’s family was protesting alongside with her. She later addressed the board during the public comments segment of the meeting.
Chrisjohn told the board that this experience was having a long-term negative effect on their futures.
“I’m up way past midnight trying to keep up,” she said. “We are not given opportunities to succeed.”
Early in the evening the crowd, led by Organizer Brian Connell from Olathe, decided it would be safer to move from across the street at Wheatridge Middle School to be directly in front of the back doors where speakers were led in and out.
Pam Stranathan , superintendent, called the Gardner Police Department to force protestors to move back across the street.
Sixty parents and students shared their frustrations with the board for a timed three minute public comment each. Public comments took three hours.
Their frustrations were repeated throughout the night from the district’s prioritizing of Fall and Winter Sports over education, technology issues, isolation and loneliness, stress, students taking care of themselves while parents work, failing grades and recent student suicides.
Nick Robinson, parent, said he wasn’t happy sports had been made a priority.
“All of you here serve the interest of every kiddo athlete or not,” he said. “Education is a bust.”
Many students expressed that their education needs weren’t being met. They said they were concerned about their mental health and suicidal thoughts and those of their friends who were struggling with social isolation.
Liam Strahan, GE junior class president, said he had lost a friend to suicide last week.
“Human life is more important,” he said. “It simply isn’t okay, and students are giving up because we feel given up on.”
Carson Chaffee, GE Junior, said he had never felt so unmotivated in his entire life.
“Zero Reasons Why was a publicity stunt,” he said.
Several parents said the board was more concerned with being sued for liability then the future of their children’s education.
Other parents said the board should create their own gating criteria because the other Johnson County school districts were open for classes but also had more cases of Covid-19 than Gardner.
Ricki Throne, parent, said Gardner only has 2.9 percent of the Kansas City Metro Covid-19 cases.
She said education is more important than sports, and the district was more concerned about lawsuits.
“You refuse to explore options for the area you serve,” she said.
Jennifer Whitlow, parent, said she was upset that the county highly discouraged winter sports, but that she had received a letter stating Gardner-Edgerton was continuing with Winter Sports.
She also said kids were safer in school.
“Schools are a well controlled environments,” she said.
Whitlow said the board needs to follow the Science.
“Covid is not going away,” she said. “They can’t be out of school indefinitely.”
School board members spoke with Johnson County Department of Health employee Elizabeth Holzschuh through Zoom after the public comment session.
“I heard very passionate statements,” she said.
Holzschuh said all school districts were struggling with safety and education. She said Johnson County was the first to create gating criteria before other Kansas counties or the state itself.
“There wasn’t a lot available at the time,” she said.
Holzschuh said the science shows schools have low transmission rates, and the high numbers are coming from social gatherings in the community.
She said Johnson County has become a hotspot in the last week and the numbers are alarming.
Holzschuh said it is important for people to continue to wear masks and social distance and the county to test, investigate cases and complete contact tracing.
“School districts in Johnson County have done a outstanding job at keeping rates low,” she said. “However schools don’t live in a bottle.”
Holzschuh said schools aren’t isolated from the effects of their community.
“It has to take all of us to come together as a community to do what we can,” she said.