As Kansas schools begin to reopen this fall, school leaders are making decisions on how to do so safely.
The Kansas State Board of Education accepted new recommendations on “gating,” or deciding what activities should be allowed at various levels of COVID-19 risk. Once those decisions are made, the next step is deciding how to operate safely when schools are open.
National Public Radio reporters consulted pediatricians, infectious disease specialists and education experts about advice for opening and operating schools. KASB compared that advice with these documents:
- Governor Laura Kelly’s executive order 20-59 on school health and safety requirements.
- The Kansas State Department of Education’s Navigating Change Guide to Safely Reopening Schools.
- The new school gating recommendations accepted by the State Board.
This is information as of August 17. These documents are all subject to change and updating.
Legal opinions differ on the status of the Governor’s order. Attorney General Derek Schmidt has issued an opinion that both counties and school boards can opt out of the order, but this issue has not been resolved in the courts. KSDE recommends at a minimum, schools implement the Navigating Change guidance. Navigating Change and the school gating criteria are recommendations, not requirements.
Risk Level Assessment
Gating criteria: Recommends local districts assess risk based on five factors: school building absentee rate compared to last school year; percent of all COVID tests in the country that are positive over the past two weeks; the two-week total increase in new cases per 100,000 population; whether new cases are decreasing, stable or increasing; and local hospital capacity.
Based on these factors, school leaders could determine if their risk level is Green, Yellow, Orange or Red. At a Green level, all learning can be onsite and school activities, spectators, visitors and playground access can operate as long as the Navigating Change protocols are followed. As risk levels increase, learning becomes a hybrid blend of onsite and remote, and activities and access become more restrictive until at the Red level, all learning and activities are remote and school facilities are almost entirely closed.
The following protocols apply when schools are open for onsite, in-person learning.
Getting to School: Riding the Bus
NPR Experts: Look for limited capacity and physical distancing, plus masks. Suggests limiting bus capacity to 50%, six feet distancing, masks, assigned seating, open windows.
Governor’s order: Not addressed.
Navigating Change (Transportation): Group size on bus must follow local/state requirements; minimize time on bus; assigned seating; load back to front, unload front to back; masks recommended for students and driver.
NPR Experts: Look for clear policies requiring sick kids and teachers to stay home. Under debate: temperature checks.
Governor’s order: Temperature checks required for all persons upon first entering school.
Navigating Change (Health): Staff members should be screened daily by taking temperatures upon entry. Best practice support taking each student’s temperature daily.
NPR Experts: Look for consistent, mandatory mask usage for kids and adults. Require masks especially when physical distance can’t be maintained; have “mask breaks,” preferably outdoors. Under debate: Face shields.
Governor’s Order: With limited exceptions, masks must be worn at all times by all persons, including students.
Navigating Change (recommended guidance Health): Best practices suggest all persons should wear masks or cloth coverings while inside school facilities unless it inhibits the person’s ability to perform his or her job, inhibits a student’s ability to participate in the educational process or is disruptive to the educational environment.
Masks or cloth face coverings are also recommended outside when social distancing is not possible. Masks or cloth face coverings should be required anytime social distancing and cohorting cannot be maintained. Face shields may be added but are not a replacement for masks.
In Class: Social Distancing and Cohorts.
NPR Experts: Look for 6 feet between desks, small class size and cohorts. Suggests staggered schedules to have fewer students in buildings allowing more distancing, keeping students in small cohorts to reduce interaction with other students, bring teachers to them rather than switching rooms. Under debate: Plexiglass dividers.
Governor’s Order: All persons in schools are to be at least six feet apart except when in classrooms and all students are masked, or in certain self-contained work areas.
Navigating Change (Classrooms): Social distance as possible by increasing space between students during in-person instruction. Use stable cohort groups and social distancing moving to remote learning with increasing restrictions based on low, moderate or high community restrictions.
What To Do When Someone Gets Sick.
NPR Experts: Look for requirement for anyone with symptoms to self-isolate – and collaborate with the local health department. Suggests that any student or staff with symptoms be tested or evaluated by doctor; stay home at least 10 days, protocol for deciding whether others exposed need to quarantine. Future goal: Routine testing.
Governor’s order: Not addressed
Navigating Change (Health): Students and employees exhibiting symptoms of COVID-19 with no other obvious explanations are prohibited from coming to school and if they do come, they will be sent home immediately. In most cases, these individuals must stay home for 10 days and 72 hours after being symptom free.
A person is considered a close contact of a case if they were within 6 feet of the case for more than 10 minutes or had exposure to secretions. Close contacts must remain in quarantine until they have met the criteria for release set by the state or local health department.
NPR Experts: Look for focus on hand hygiene and cleaning high-touch surfaces. Have sanitizers in classrooms and hallways, focus cleaning high touch areas like doorknobs and bathrooms. Open for debate: disinfectant misters.
Governor’s Orders: All classrooms must have hand sanitizers; all persons must sanitize hands at least once an hour.
Navigating Change (Facilities): Hand sanitizer stations should be available in multiple locations to encourage frequent use. Define and implement cleaning procedures, prioritize high-touch areas and common spaces.
NPR Experts: Look for as much airflow as possible. Set or modify ventilation systems to provide as much air flow as possible; change filters frequently, if necessary, consider free standing filters. Open to debate: UV light systems.
Governor’s order: Not addressed.
Navigating Change (Facilities): Consider increasing outside air ventilation; check and change HVAC filters frequently; open available windows when weather conditions allow. (Notes that these steps will increase utility costs.)
Lunch and Snacks
NPR Experts: Look for staggered cafeteria time or in-classroom dining. Avoid serving meals in cafeterias or stagger meals to reduce numbers.
Governor’s Order: not addressed.
Navigating Change (Food Service): Follow state and local school nutrition requirements; require handwashing before meals; monitor to ensure social distancing; extend meal service to allow fewer students in serving areas; use more areas (such as classrooms) for meals to maintain distancing.
NPR Experts: Look for outdoor recess in small supervised groups. Outside recess if possible; require masks if students can’t remain six feet apart; allow multiple “mask breaks” during the day outside or with distancing.
Governor’s Order: Not addressed.
Navigating Change: social distancing recommendations.
Gym and Sports
NPR Experts: Look for outdoor activities and no contact sports. Avoid physical contact, including team sports.
Governor’s Order: not addressed.
Navigating Change (Extra and Cocurricular): Based on Centers for Disease Control, National Federation of State High School Associations; Kansas Department of Health and Environment, Kansas State High School Activities Association: Increase communications on COVID issues; conduct and document symptoms and temperature monitoring and close contact; adopt personal hygiene protocols including social distancing and handwashing; masks strongly encouraged is most cases.
Activities are identified by Higher Risk, Moderate Risk and Lower Risk but none are prohibited; efforts should be made to minimize contact; masking and social distancing recommended for performing arts.
The Missing Ingredient: Funding
NPR Experts: Look for a boost in funding. Schools will need more money.
Governor’s Order: funding not addressed. The Governor maintained most of the funding approved for school districts for the 2020-21 school year when making adjustments to balance the state budget. Gov. Kelly’s administration and legislative leaders have directed $60 million in federal COVID-19 funds for broadband expansion, which could help students and schools, and $10 million for early childhood initiatives.
Navigating Change: Notes increased costs associated with many recommendations.
Note: School districts received $86 million in direct federal aid to address COVID-related expenses and may apply for additional federal aid available through state and county funding. Congress is considering additional aid.