To reopen this fall, public schools are working to balance student and staff safety, community needs, quality learning, and help students dealing with additional challenges. Here is where things stand now.
On Wednesday, July 22, the Kansas State Board of Education did not approve Governor Laura Kelly’s executive order that would have delayed the start of K-12 schools until Sept. 8. That means the decision on when schools open this fall will be made by local school boards – unless there is a local public health order that would prohibit them from opening.
After the board vote, Governor Kelly issued a statement asking every school district to delay the start of school. Some school districts have already announced they will delay their start. Other districts are likely to start on time.
Local school boards will not only have to decide when to start school, but also how to start school. These decisions will be influenced by three factors in addition to local input.
First, Governor Kelly issued a second executive order on Monday, July 20, that does not have to be approved by the State Board and goes into effect August 10. It would require virtually all persons in school, including most students, to wear masks or face covering most of the time; require six-foot social distancing except in classrooms where masks are worn; hand sanitizing every hour and daily temperature checks for all persons entering school.
Second, other officials may play a role. County commissions have authority to adopt less restrictive regulations than statewide health orders, but there are different opinions over whether this applies to schools. Cities and counties can also issue orders that are more restrictive than state requirements based on local circumstances. In addition, although the Governor has issued a statewide executive order, it appears to be up to the county or district attorney or state Attorney General to actually enforce such an order, through a civil penalty of up to $2,500 per violation.
Third, last week the State Board of Education accepted guidelines, called Navigating Change 2020, for operating schools this year under three learning environments:
On-site – students and teachers will be in school with or without social distancing practices put into place.
Hybrid – students would be spending part of their time in the classroom and part of their time learning virtually from home.
Remote – students would be doing all their learning from home and not entering the school building at all.
KSDE recommends that school officials work with local health officials to determine what model would be used through the year based on whether COVID-19 cases are low or declining (onsite); basically steady (hybrid) or rising (remote). That means the learning model for students could change throughout the year. These choices could also apply to individual students, for example, some parents may want to keep their children at home and learning remotely even if school buildings are open.
The first part of the Navigating Change guide concerns learning expectations and identifies the “essential” competencies or knowledge and skills students should learn. The goal is to provide much clearer expectations for teachers, students and parents over what is to be taught at each level, regardless of where a child was learning. It also sets stronger accountability requirements for remote learning, including teacher check-in and daily student logs.
The second part provides recommendations or options for reducing the risk of COVID-19 spread when students and teacher are physically in school buildings. The document was aimed at helping students and staff be safe if learning was taking place at school; and making learning more effective if taking place away from school.
With a few exceptions such as remote learning requirements, everything in the document is recommendations or options for local school boards, not requirements. The State Board action does not require local districts to do, or not do, anything not already required by state or federal law, or by state or local health restrictions.
The Governor’s order, on the other hand, requires all schools, public and private, to follow the mandates for masks, social distancing, hand sanitizing and temperature checks, and in some cases, these requirements differ from the guidance document recommendations. For example, the KSDE guidance recommends mask for all students in middle school and older; the Governor’s order requires masks for students regardless of age.
Masks have become extremely controversial, but districts will have to follow the requirements or risk sanctions for violating the executive order, unless their local county commission can and does opt out of the executive order.
During the special session this year, the Legislature changed state law to allow each county’s board of commissioners to adopt less restrictive public health orders than statewide provisions adopted by the Governor. For example, most Kansas counties opted out of the Governor’s order requiring masks to be worn in public.
However, Governor Kelly’s administration has indicated that this law may not apply to orders only dealing with schools, because such orders are not “statewide.” If a county attempts to modify the Governors school order, it might be up to the courts to resolve.
Local school boards cannot be less restrictive than state or local health mandates, but they can be more so. If counties can reject the Governor’s statewide school health requirements, local school boards can still follow those requirements, or any part of the State Board’s guidance.
To answer the questions about when school will open and what that will mean, local school boards will be influenced by decisions of the Governor, Legislature, State Board and local governments. But they will have to make most of the decisions based on how to deliver the best education to the most students in the safest possible ways for their community. One factor will be consideration of local data on COVID cases in their area.