The big question of the summer: Will schools re-open in August?

By Scott Rothschild 

Now that the school year is over, the question on the minds of students, parents, teachers and board members is — will schools re-open in August? 

Kansas Education Commissioner Randy Watson says at this point, that’s the plan. 

“We are cautiously optimistic we will be in school in August 2020,” Watson said recently. 

After schools were shut down in mid-March because of the coronavirus pandemic, Kansas teachers won praise for quickly developing continuous learning programs through online instruction and sending lesson packets to students’ homes. But teachers across the state have also acknowledged that without daily contact in the classroom, some students will fall behind academically, socially and emotionally. 

Now that states, including Kansas, are relaxing restrictions on businesses and public places, some have vowed that schools must open on time, while others say safety must be the top priority.  

But re-opening plans during this deadly pandemic have been problematic. It’s difficult to plan for opening school three months from now when who would’ve guessed that three months ago, a worldwide pandemic would’ve shut down schools and the world’s economy. 

“Even if Kansans do everything perfectly for the next couple of months, new outbreaks are almost inevitable until a COVID-19 vaccine is developed, manufactured and made widely available. It is essential that we make this transition slowly, gradually and cautiously,” Gov. Laura Kelly said.  

Watson said the Kansas State Department of Education is planning for every contingency.  

He said educators are working on standards and assessments; reformatting and prioritizing them in a learning plan to ensure that students are growing socially, emotionally and academically.   

This month, Watson has said he wants to enlist the aid of parents, educators, board members and legislators to work on how to implement the new learning plan and the logistics of opening schools and ensuring safety.  

That guidance plan would then go to Kansas school superintendents and the State Board of Education in July.

Many local district across the state are already discussing and planning for several contingencies, such as restarting early, having staggered schedules for students, eating lunch in the classrooms, having the ability to switch to online learning if that is necessary.

In addition, some legislators have recommended an interim committee be set up to look into the continuous learning plans. House K-12 Education Budget Committee Chairwoman Kristey Williams, R-Augusta, has proposed that the plans include some “direct contact instruction.” Her proposal also sets specific amounts of time that teachers must provide reading, math and English instruction and calls for accountability measures to gauge student progress. 

Meanwhile, Kelly, who was the first governor in the country to shut all schools for the remainder of the school year, has said she hopes schools re-open in August but added that if further closures are needed, Kansas has developed “the gold standard” for continuous learning. 

“Fortunately, Kansas put in what has really become the gold standard for continuous learning guidelines,” Kelly said, crediting teachers and administrators. She also said schools have implemented meal programs, mental health services and child care for front line health and safety workers. 

“So, we have the model. I hope that we don’t have to use it in August but if the wave comes back in October or November, we already know what to do,” Kelly said. 

She added, “I want the schools open, I want Friday night football, I want all of that to happen. That is our goal but we are going to be prepared for either one.” 

Watson said there is no substitute for the classroom experience to teach students. “We have too many kids who cannot learn if we are not back in session,” he said. 

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