It has been less than one month since Governor Laura Kelly ordered Kansas schools to cease traditional operations until the end of May, followed by local, state and federal directives for people to stay home as much as possible, and upending life as most of us know it.
The Kansas Association of School Boards has just completed a series of on-line meetings for school board members and superintendents to discuss how the current crisis is affecting students, families, and educators. Here is what we learned.
The first priority, of course, was health and safety. This meant complying with orders for social distancing and deep cleaning of facilities, but it was immediately clear it meant much more. For many students, school meals are not just a convenience but their most dependable food source, now more than ever as thousands of Kansans are losing their jobs. New food service delivery had to be organized in a matter of days, or even hours.
For many families with working parents, school also provides safe custodial care while parents are working – and some parents are still working and cannot work from home. For many students, school is also the first provider of physical and mental health, from nurses, counselors, and school psychologists. School leaders are worried about students in families facing enormous economic and mental stress and the possibility of increased abuse and neglect. They talked about efforts of staff to simply stay connected with children and families as a source of information and support.
Second, school districts are putting in place continuous learning plans: supplying teaching online or through packets of material for students at home. No one expects these efforts to be as effective as in-person teaching. The biggest concern is that this situation will widen the gap between high achieving and struggling students, which already happens over summer vacations.
The school bus has been a key part of accessible public education for generations. Now, internet access is just as critical, but an estimated 70,000 Kansas students do not have regular internet service at home. Some internet providers have stepped up to provide free access in the short term and work with districts to share “hot spots,” but it hasn’t covered all families and is not a long-term solution.
Even homes with internet access may not be conducive to learning. Educators are trying to balance reasonable expectations for home studies with not overwhelming parents and caregivers who never prepared to be teachers and are coping with other challenges of health, jobs, or unemployment. Everyone is learning how hard it can be to keep students focused, especially when not in a classroom.
Many students with the right home environment will continue to make at least some progress. The challenge will be students already struggling or bored and disengaged, and those with special needs for more individualized attention and “hands on” programs. As a result, educators are already thinking about how to keep these students from falling even further behind, not knowing when in-person contact can begin again.
Third, even in this crisis, school districts must continue to function and meet legal obligations. School boards have learned how to hold meetings online that follow the state open meetings act. Districts are managing employees affected by or fearful of the pandemic, expanded federal employee benefits that make it easier for some employees to take paid leave, and a new state law directing districts to continue paying salaries for employees whose work isn’t needed. In response, districts are working to reconfigure their workforce for changing needs.
Schools are moving to online learning and communications while trying to comply with multiple state and federal privacy and technology laws written long before this crisis but remain in place. They are working to follow special education laws and keep in place individualized services for the one out of six Kansas students receive special education designed for in-person delivery.
Despite these challenges and the deep concerns about the impact of the school closure on students, school leaders expressed many positive feelings as well.
There was overwhelming gratitude for teachers, administrators and support staff who have redoubled their efforts to show concern for and support of students and their families. And despite much frustration and fear, many parents have expressed thanks and renewed appreciation for what educators do.
In addition, school leaders praised how their communities have worked together, from donations by local businesses to sharing staff and facilities. In some places, the school district had to lead as the primary local service provider in the community. In others, the district was able to partner with local governments, higher education, and community organizations. In each case, school leaders said this crisis, like so many other emergencies, has forced people to work together.
Finally, there is hope for learning lessons out of this experience that can lead to better schools when the crisis has passed. The four “principles” of the State Board of Education’s school redesign initiative are: a better blend of academic instruction with social and emotional support that students need to learn; much stronger relationships or true partnerships with families, communities and business; more flexible and individualized student learning that technology can help provide; and more relevant “real world” experiences for students.
Each of these principles applies to what schools are having to confront, and tt was noted that schools which are already a part of the redesign process had a head start in facing the current crisis.
These are the most common ideas and concerns school leaders have shared with KASB. We encourage school leaders to share their thoughts directly with their own community members.