Since the COVID-19 pandemic reached Kansas last March, locally elected school boards have responded to unprecedented challenges, using volumes of data, state and national directives and input from families, staff and other constituents.
The following is a statewide summary of the major challenges schools have faced as a result of the COVID pandemic, how schools are responding, and some of the on-going issues that will have to be addressed.
KASB has prepared this report for education leaders, state policy makers and candidates for office, the news media and general public. Local school leaders are encouraged to share their specific experiences, responses, and issues with local elected officials and members of their community.
- Last Spring’s School Closure
School districts faced a statewide order to close schools with little time to plan and had to immediately implement remote learning for all students. At the same time, they had to design new ways to deliver meals for students with food insecurity and to provide other essential services. A major concern was that many students do not have access to high speed broadband or have the devices to learn from home. While districts worked to provide technology and internet access, many families still had to be given take-home packets providing less engagement with teachers and school staff.
Even if technology and broadband access were available, districts reported some families were simply unable to provide an environment structured to support effective learning.
Districts also reported challenges in maintaining engagement with students and families over long periods of time without direct school contact, raising concerns about child and family well-being. Teachers and other district staff worked to maintain communications to the extent possible.
Districts faced multiple employment issues. The Legislature directed districts to continue to pay salaries of employees and negotiated agreements with teachers remained in effect. New federal laws provided additional leave rights. Many activities were cancelled, leaving in question how to handle issuance of contracts and payment to coaches and sponsors for duties which could not be performed under their supplemental contracts.
Districts offering daycares had to pay staff, while not receiving revenue for the self-supporting programs. Federal funds for federally mandated leave were not immediately available, leaving some to consider shutting down the programs for good.
School District Responses:
Many districts worked with local internet service providers to expand broadband access and provide hotspots and additional technology, but not all students were reached – an on-going issue for Kansas.
Schools restructured meal programs to provide services to families when schools closed.
School boards worked to address employment issues through memorandums of agreement with teacher associations, adopting new or temporary policies and seeking equitable treatment of employees with different work responsibilities and environments.
Many teachers and support staff worked to provide additional engagement with students and families, especially trying to reach those with whom they had limited or no contact.
2. School Reopening this Fall
As the fall semester approached, school districts faced an unprecedented challenge in balancing:
(1) the clear academic and social-emotional needs of students best supported by onsite learning.
(2) concerns for remote and hybrid learning environments when working parents are unable to provide supervised home learning.
(3) many parents wanting school to open onsite to provide more effective instruction, stable custodial care, and provide students with social supports and activities.
(4) other parents did NOT want children in school and preferred remote learning.
(5) rising COVID rates in many – but not all – Kansas communities which threatened to spread the virus not only among students but older members of their families at greater risk.
(6) health concerns for staff members and that fact that staff who would not work in situations they felt were unsafe, or became ill, could result in staff shortages making it impossible to operate.
(7) changing advice from health experts on best practices based on various factors.
(8) uncertainty over how to implement sports and activities in compliance with state directives in the face of strong public and parent support to continue.
Other issues during the summer were the use of district facilities under the Governor’s Ad Astra Reopening Plan, providing for special education and related services, operating school lunch and breakfast programs, and whether to allow state directed school activities to proceed.
In July, the Governor’s order to delay school reopening until after Labor Day was rejected by the State Board of Education under its authority granted by HB 2016 from the 2020 special session, placing the responsibility on local boards.
Unlike private schools and organizations, school districts cannot reopen “as space allows.” Reopening for onsite learning for students is only possible when districts can provide space, staff, and support for all students wishing to attend.
Districts also must provide extensive and specific special education services under state and federal laws with few, if any, exceptions for the pandemic. These requirements are almost entirely determined at the federal level.
School District Response:
Districts across Kansas adopted a wide range of opening dates and learning environments, with different transitions from remote to hybrid to onsite learning based on local circumstances, advice from health agencies and public input. Boards responded to significantly different local conditions as indicated by state and local criteria for reopening. Districts have prioritized onsite learning for students with lower COVID-related risks and most urgent childcare issues.
District decisions also reflected different local capacity to provide space for social distancing. Many districts are working to use non-school facilities to provide onsite learning.
With KSDE oversight, remote learning requires assurances by both school and parent on oversight.
As most districts began offering both on-site and a mix of hybrid and remote learning, school leaders report many teachers are struggling to provide effective learning in each format, requiring more time and training and leading to deep frustration.
Districts report significantly higher concerns about mental health of staff, students and their families, even for schools with full time, onsite programs. School leaders note that staff are struggling to meet their own expectations and seeing the stress on their students.
Students are dealing with income loss, illness and death in their own families, and their own fears about health issues and additional responsibility.
3. State and Local Directives
School boards have sometimes faced confusing signals over what authority governs school district operations. There have been conflicting interpretations over whether the Governor’s executive order regarding COVID mitigation (EO 20-59 mandating face masks, social distancing, hand sanitizing and temperature checks in schools) was subject to modification by county commissions, whether school boards could use their home rule authority to modify the order, and when and if the order expired.
The Kansas State Board of Education and Department of Education issued school reopening guidelines, which are just that: guidance. In addition, the Centers for Disease Control and local health officials have issued guidelines. While not binding on local districts, school boards are potentially faced with liability issues based on whether they are appropriately following health guidance and best practices. For example, the CDC recently modified its guidance on temperature checks, making CDC guidance in conflict with the executive order.
Pressure to open schools to onsite, in–person learning does not relieve school districts of legal liability in lawsuits, particularly if districts are not following local, state or federal health recommendations or are ignoring expert advice on local health conditions. Neither the state nor federal governments have provided schools COVID-related liability protection.
Like school boards, local health officers have had to deal with unprecedented circumstances. However, school districts across the state have reported differences in, or confusion over, local health decisions regarding quarantine practices, contact tracing and notification, which may lead to conflict.
In some cases, local health departments have asked districts to quarantine people, contact trace, and send out all notices because they cannot reach people in a timely manner. The law gives the quarantine authority to LHDs and health professionals. The law also inhibits LHDs from sharing information on people quarantined back with schools, so there is reluctance to provide the information without parents doing so voluntarily.
One reason for many districts to be in remote or hybrid learning is because the number of required quarantines resulted in schools without enough staff to operate onsite, especially if operating with recommended social distancing. However, differing county policies or restrictions have frustrated parents and patrons when their local schools are operating differently than others in the area. These differences also create issues when school activities are held in different communities.
Finally, districts face issues when parents do not follow quarantine orders or cooperate with contact tracing and send students to school when they have no alternatives for childcare.
School District Response:
Districts must balance existing state and federal health and privacy laws with new state contact tracing legislation and regulations in dealing with the worst public health emergency in a century.
They are managing daily changes in the health of students, availability of staff and family needs; and working to assist local health officials; and follow changing guidance and coordinating with state agencies, local agencies, and area school districts. Schools are addressing legal issues with assistance from KASB and other organizations.
Schools working to open and continue to operate in–person while containing the spread of COVID require ways to mitigate the spread, test and contact trace and quarantine. These steps are more difficult where there is strong opposition to masks, limited ability for testing, tracing and quarantine; and families not cooperating because they want their children in school and return to work.
4. Funding and Expenditures
While districts may have experienced some savings in certain areas such as utilities and transportation when schools were closed, they have had significantly higher expenditures in other areas. These include:
(1) cleaning costs and personal protective equipment.
(2) expanded technology access for students and teachers (devices, training, software).
(3) additional facility space, equipment, furnishings and staff for social distancing.
(4) additional transportation costs for social distancing on buses and in some cases meal delivery.
(5) higher overtime, substitute, and sick leave costs.
(6) additional professional development on remote learning and health protocols.
(7) additional costs for health services, from testing to contact tracing.
Another challenge that has emerged is uncertainty around enrollment and how to accurately count students for funding purposes in shifting learning environments. For example, if students staying home to learn remotely decide they want to return to an on-site setting, staffing, transportation and other costs could change.
School districts have been provided two revenue sources for these costs: first, $86 million in direct federal aid and second, the ability to apply for federal funding provided to counties or other grants through the state SPARK process.
However, these funds were not distributed based on actual expenses. Direct federal aid was provided though a formula weighted to student poverty; and there has been a wide range in the percentage of county funds allocated to schools, based on priorities of county commissioners.
Although these funds can ONLY be used for COVID-related expenses, it is not guaranteed that they will cover ALL COVID-related expenses, and the percentage of additional costs covered may vary widely by districts. In addition, districts report some confusion over what qualifies as a COVID-19 -related expense.
Unless Congress takes some additional action, these federal funds will not be continued. However, it is not clear when the additional school district costs associated with COVID-19 will end. Although Governor Kelly adopted an allotment plan this summer that avoided major cuts in school funding programs for the current school year, fiscal estimates indicate the state of Kansas will face a budget shortfall in the next fiscal year of hundreds of millions of dollars without additional federal aid.
School District Response:
Districts have allocated direct federal aid to COVID expenses and many have worked with their county governments to secure additional federal assistance through the SPARK process based on local priorities.
All of these funds must be used for pandemic-related expenditures and with specific deadlines. Early reports show most of these funds have been used to provide clean, safe environments for onsite learning, to improve and expand remote learning as needed, and for additional personnel costs.
5. Long Term Learning Impact
There are deep concerns about the impact of extended school absences on students, especially those who are already at–risk. While students learn at different rates and in different ways, there is generally a strong correlation between the amount of time in a quality learning environment and what learning is retained. Likewise, many children regress when they are away from school, such as over summer breaks.
This impact is greatest on children in low income households and those with special learning challenges (disabilities, English learners, etc.). Highly engaged students, especially with strong family support, may do as well or better in remote learning or over breaks because they have other enriching experiences.
Children without these supports have likely lost ground in their education progress, and it may take years to make up the gap, if ever. Because these students have lost time, it will likely take additional time to recover. For school districts, time has a cost.
A large learning gap between low income students and upper income students already exists. That gap has likely worsened because of school closures. If the pandemic results in further disruptions to these students and their families, because of income loss, unemployment and evictions, the consequences will likely be even greater.
Since the pandemic started, schools have been thrown into responding to emergencies and changes on an almost daily basis. But the long-term effects of this crisis have only begun to surface.
School District Response:
As students return to school, districts are using measures to determine where they are academically and in terms of social and emotional needs and to develop responses.
Districts have also worked to continue to provide student support programs and student activities to engage students to the extent deemed safe and appropriate.
The Kansas State Department of Education worked with educators across Kansas this summer to develop a framework based on student competencies for age and grade bands. This allows educators to focus on essential skills in core areas, rather than just “seat time” in a curriculum.
KSDE, regional service centers and various organizations are working to help districts and teachers implement these concepts, which could allow a more targeted focus on essential learning for students who have fallen behind or are in a hybrid or remote learning environment.
In addition, schools will likely have to provide additional resources (time and people) to assist students with special interventions and services.
Schools, districts and postsecondary institutions may need to significantly redesign how they serve the student populations impacted by the loss of in–person learning, socialization and school support programs, and family trauma. This may require changes state in state policies and regulations.