A school’s football coaching staff is in quarantine in one Kansas school district.
In another, the entire kindergarten staff is quarantined. In other schools, it is just one or two students or staff members who test positive for the coronavirus, but suddenly, the entire school has to quarantine.
Those are just some of the situations Randy Watson, state commissioner of education, saw when he toured western Kansas schools last week, and they are the challenges that each district, big and small, will eventually face, he told the Kansas State Board of Education on Wednesday.
Most rural Kansas schools opened before Labor Day, Watson said, and have been in school for a few weeks. In that short time, they have been tested already by the strains of keeping schools open during the pandemic, especially as cases begin to pop up among students and staff.
“What that starts, then, is a juggling of who is going to teach, how do I get this done, who gets to come to school, who has to go home for 14 days?” Watson said. “You layer that on top of communities still fighting over staff and activities, and I will tell you, in my opinion, I have never seen school boards, principals, teachers and administrators under so much stress in my life. Because no matter what they do, it’s wrong, and it doesn’t entirely solve the problem.”
Practically all of the state’s larger, urban districts — such as Topeka Unified School District 501 and districts in Johnson and Sedgwick counties — open this week, mostly in remote or hybrid learning settings. They make up the majority of the state’s 500,000 students. Watson said it will take a while for those districts to figure out any issues with their school reopening plans.
In the midst of that, Watson said, the Kansas State Department of Education has focused on two things: opening schools and keeping people safe. It is becoming clearer every day that opening schools is essential to keeping Kansas’ students on track, and Watson said he is worried by early data showing greater academic regression among special needs, early learning and lower-income students.
But keeping schools open is proving to be a tremendous challenge for some districts, Watson said, and some school administrators have talked with him in private to tell him their jobs have become impossible.
“One (superintendent) said, ‘I’ve been doing this a long time, and I no longer want to do it,’ ” Watson said. “Another said, ‘I can’t do this anymore. Every decision we make is a wrong decision for someone, and it’s emotional and intense, and I can’t do it.’ “
Watson proposed that the board look at relaxing some of its broader plans and requirements for education in Kansas to allow teachers and administrators a chance to catch their breaths. He acknowledged that there doesn’t seem to be any perfect solution to the issues districts face, but schools will have to make the best out of the given situation.
“I can tell you today, in schools that are open today, someone lost a science teacher (to quarantine) today,” Watson said. “Someone lost kids that had to be quarantined. Someone lost a sporting team for 14 days, and that 14-day shuffle is what’s causing stress. We’re going to have to look at what that balance is between holding accountability — so we know that learning is going to take place to the best of our ability — and making sure we can operate schools and give them the flexibility to navigate this.”
Board member Jean Clifford, who joined Watson for part of his tour, said she has seen the same kind of stress in school districts. Clifford represents District 5, which covers the western third of the state.
“Even when they’re running relatively smoothly right now, there’s the stress of time to prepare themselves for every eventuality, and your mind is reeling with possibilities,” she said.
The board moved to allow districts to suspend accreditation requirements for this fall, if they choose to do so, to focus on other COVID-19 operations. Public school districts and private schools go through a five-year KSDE accreditation process that includes on-site visits, and much of that process was delayed earlier this year as a result of the pandemic.
The board split 5-5 and failed to pass a measure that would have delayed the department’s timeline to improve dyslexia services across the state. A task force had recommended funding a statewide dyslexia coordinator position to better support education for those students, as well as increased professional learning, universal screening and other support.
Department staff had asked the board to delay implementing those support services, including the coordinator position, because of a lack of funding. Former and current dyslexic students and their parents spoke about their poor experiences in schools and had urged the board to deny the request and stick to the more immediate timeline.
The board saw a report on broadband internet access for Kansas students. About 9.7%, or 48,587, of the state’s 500,000 students lack broadband internet access in their homes. The data in the report didn’t differentiate between financial inability or lack of physical access to internet.
The board will hold a joint virtual meeting Wednesday with the Kansas Board of Regents to discuss common issues across K-12 and higher education. The discussion will include aligning spring breaks across both education systems.