Watson says goal is to start school in August

Kansas Education Commissioner Randy Watson on Tuesday said the state is planning to start school in August but added that because of the coronavirus pandemic the Kansas State Department of Education is planning for every contingency.

“We are cautiously optimistic we will be in school in August 2020,” Watson said. “We have too many kids who cannot learn if we are not back in school,” both socially and emotionally and academically, he said. “We are going to do everything we can to get back into school this fall,” Watson said.

But Watson also noted that while KSDE will provide guidance to school districts, the ultimate decisions on opening schools, how it will be done and whether there are restrictions will be up to Gov. Laura Kelly and local health and school officials.

State Board of Education members and Watson indicated they have received numerous questions from the public on whether school will re-open at the start of the next school year.

Watson maintained the goal is for school to start in August. However, to prepare during the current pandemic, Watson said he is having a group of educators review and prioritize state education standards. That work product will then be handed off to another group in June that will produce by July 10 guidance to school districts that will help them redesign their operations. This, he said, will hopefully help schools if classes are interrupted again because of the health crisis.

Kansas K-12 schools were shut down March 17 through an executive order by Gov. Kelly. Kelly also ordered KSDE to formulate guidance for school districts to put in place Continuous Learning Plans for the state’s half million students.These plans — many of which were launched within a week of school closures — include online instruction, paper lesson packets and small group teaching. Kansas’ Continuous Learning Plans were sought after by more than half the states, Watson said.

Kelly recently said Kansas’ ability to shut school buildings and pivot to continuous learning online will make it easier to do so again if necessary if the pandemic worsens.

“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.

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.

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