Governor praises continuous learning; board members cite challenges

Gov. Laura Kellly recently said Kansas’ ability to shut school buildings and pivot to continuous learning online because of the coronavirus pandemic will make it easier to do so again if necessary.

“I think the fact that our schools within a matter of three or four days were able to put together a pretty comprehensive continuous learning program outside of our school buildings will give us the freedom in November if we have to to say, `You know what, we have to get out of the buildings for a while, but then we can re-implement those continuous learning programs,’ ” Kelly said.

Through an executive order, Kelly shut down school buildings for the school year on March 17, making Kansas the first state in the nation to close an entire state school system. Within a week, most school districts launched continuous learning programs that switched instruction to online classes and provided meal pickups. Many states borrowed from Kansas’ efforts to install their own at-home learning.

While schools may reopen in August, many believe they will do so in a limited fashion and some health officials say another spike of COVID-19 cases will likely force another round of school closures.

Some in the education community say that while they are proud of how Kansas responded to school closures, online learning presents many challenges for students, families and teachers.

In discussions with local school board members from across the state, concerns have been raised about a significant number of students who don’t have internet access to continue their studies at home, the difficulty in reaching some students simply to check if they are OK and providing help for children with disabilities.

On Tuesday, Kansas Education Commissioner Randy Watson is scheduled to provide the State Board of Education with an update on the state’s continuous learning plan implementation and results of a survey of public and private school districts.

The survey sought answers to the following questions:

• What changes have you made since the implementation of the original plan?

• How are you managing the engagement of students?

• What is the feedback from families?

• How many meals are you serving?

KASB and other education groups are pushing for increased federal funding to close what is called “the homework gap,” which refers to the unequal availability of broadband internet access for students.

It is estimated, 70,000 Kansas K-12 students lack internet access at home; a number that would make it the state’s largest school district. The gap between internet “haves” and “have-nots” is particularly acute in rural areas without coverage or in high-poverty areas where families can’t afford service.

With schools, public libraries, universities, churches, and other internet-equipped public buildings also closed, the homework gap is even wider for students who do not have internet access at home.

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