Frustration and confusion surround local school reopening policies
Governor Laura Kelly announced last week that Kansas schools would start, at the earliest, after Labor Day. Today, Mayor Quinton Lucas announced non-binding guidelines for Kansas City schools that made the same recommendation. A later start date will give teachers and staff time to prepare–and will give the community time to slow the spread of the coronavirus.
We had a missed opportunity this summer. We could have stayed at home, kept businesses closed, avoided gathering with those outside our household. We could have kept the curve flat. That way, when school time rolled around again, the risks would have been minimal and manageable. Students and staff could have returned to school buildings and stood a chance. Education could have happened.
Instead, schools are facing the impossible choices on how kids can learn in the middle of a raging pandemic. Do they open school buildings and risk major outbreaks? Do they teach remotely when many children won’t have someone to care for them?
Most school districts have been considering at least three approaches for planning the fall semester: fully in-person education; fully remote education; and a blended model where students attend school part-time in alternating groups.
The Kansas City Health Department has advised school districts against holding in-person classes this fall. Shawnee Mission and North Kansas City have publicized their multi-layered plans without yet committing to a path. Kansas City, MO Public Schools had planned to announce their plans Monday, but after the latest guidance from health officials, they are reconfiguring plans that had included an in-person option.
Raymore-Peculiar is planning to allow families a choice between remote and in-person learning. Jackie Daytona* is a teacher in the district concerned about the risks of in-person education. (Names with asterisks have been changed, to protect against the chance of employer retaliation.) “They’re hoping [remote learning] will be popular enough that it lowers building rates across the board,” says Daytona, which will allow social distancing measures to be effective. But this plan will only work if enough families are able to choose remote learning for their children.
The choice between in-person and remote learning isn’t a true one: many parents do not have the option of being able to be at home all day with their kids, helping them stay on track with their schoolwork. The kids coming to school are more likely from lower-income backgrounds, placing an undue burden of risk on families who already have enough challenges.
And with three Ray-Pec staff members contracting COVID this week, all these plans are likely to change. “The speed with which cases are rising and administrator tone is changing means a couple of people are thinking we might have our hand forced to remote only from the start,” Daytona says. “I still think we’ll be in-person at minimal capacity for a while (just to assuage parents), but the district’s willingness to address our training requests this early makes me think that even if it’s an unspoken thought, no one expects us to stay in-person for long.”
For any blended model that has some students at home and some in the classroom, a big question remains: how will teachers teach? “How would we go about creating that simultaneous in-person and remote learning?” says Daytona. “There’s no real precedent for it. That’s the part that no one really knows or has a great answer to right now.”
It can be done. Teachers can rise to this challenge–but give them a chance to do so. “I think that’s where a lot of the anxiety’s coming from for teachers right now,” says Daytona. “Until we know we’re going to do that, we can’t very well plan for it. And if we don’t plan for it, then we’re just going to essentially have the spring chaos all over again, which is what nobody wants.”
Current rates of transmission suggest that in-person education won’t be able to be sustained for very long. “If you’re showing symptoms, you’re supposed to take 72 hours away,” says Daytona. “And that’s just symptoms–people have symptoms all the time–so realistically you could be down multiple teachers in every building within a couple of days. If any of those are confirmed, it’s a 14-day mandatory quarantine. Subs are already a premium around the metro, it’s just hard to get them, and most of them are either retired former teachers or other people who hit all of the high-risk population targets.”
So how long before there’s going to be a shortage of staff in buildings? “Almost immediately,” he says. And when positive cases arise, you could very quickly have multiple classrooms quarantine for two weeks at home, pivoting to remote education.
Ultimately, the work required to try to contain a pandemic in a school building is going to detract mightily from the learning experience. “If we do go back to in-person,” says Daytona, “we’re going to be spending so much time with those guidelines, that any of the learning that would normally be occurring in person, all of the benefits would be undercut by a necessary obsession with guideline-following. It won’t be the most educational semester no matter what.”
Daytona advocates for an all-remote fall semester, not only for the safety of students and staff, but because the way things are trending, schools will be forced to go remote anyway, so might as well do it right from the beginning. “The only real way to avoid something as bad as remote learning happened in the spring would be to give teachers and students time to prepare to do it well in the fall,” says Daytona. “I think looking at it as an inevitability, and budgeting the time, is about the only thing right now that would salvage learning of any kind.”
While we’re at it, health concerns go beyond COVID. “Mental health concerns were already a big issue, everywhere in teaching, everywhere in education… when you add in this new factor of both uncertainty and a literal threat to health, I think the lack of resources towards mental health care is going to be a pretty bad issue.” Plans should include boosting resources for counselors and other mental health support for staff and students.
For districts who have publicized their reopening plans, there remain a lot of unanswered questions. In their draft reopening plans, Shawnee Mission calculates that to socially distance in an 800 sq ft classroom, there can only be 16 students. The next bullet point asks, “What do we do if there are more than 16-18 in a classroom? We cannot answer this right now.”
The plans also note that “Desks will be cleaned at the beginning of each class period.” But by whom? Will teachers be expected to spend passing periods hurriedly taking Lysol wipes to every desk in their classroom? Will they be able to obtain enough cleaning wipes to do that?
In North Kansas City’s plans, the guidelines for their planned return to in-person learning lack much certainty. “To the extent possible, students will be spaced throughout the classroom to promote physical distancing.” What if the extent possible is less than 6 feet? Also, “Staff will be required to wear a cloth mask during most of the school day.” The soft language is perhaps meant to be tolerable to skeptics but lacks commitment to even the most basic CDC guidelines.
And even adhering to the guidelines might not be enough. The guidelines didn’t keep 85 kids from contracting COVID at a summer camp in Georgia.
School districts are facing impossible decisions. Their plans have been compiled by people working hard and who (for the most part) want to ensure everyone can stay safe and healthy. The problem here is that, well, millions of people have a highly contagious and dangerous virus right now, and maybe there just isn’t a way to gather hundreds of people together under one roof all day, every day, and expect them all to stay healthy.
“Based on what I’m hearing from all the teachers that I know, people are highly, highly uncomfortable,” says Leslie Goldman*, a speech-language pathologist for the Shawnee Mission School District.
While tasked with keeping kids safe and the economy functioning, educators are trying to figure out the best way to serve students with special needs and disabilities. Goldman says, “The students that I work with are not capable of accessing the materials online and through video and having the same kind of learning experiences. They’re just not. Often they can’t even attend to a screen. Their behavioral programs and their communication programs and their academic programs are so interlinked, it’s a big puzzle of all these pieces that make up that experience of learning for them, so that’s really challenging to re-create remotely.”
“I want to see them in person, I think every teacher would say that,” says Goldman. “I want to be in the classroom with them. I’d like to be able to provide that service for them, the way that it is effective. Unfortunately, because I don’t feel like it’s safe for teachers and students to be physically at school, I don’t advocate for us being physically at school. I just don’t think it’s safe.”
If schools are unable to reopen safely, there are many students for whom remote learning may not be effective. Cassie Winter, an occupational therapist working in Kansas City Public Schools, is concerned about the impact on the students she serves. “We’re working with a demographic of people who are impoverished, who are not only at a higher risk of contracting [COVID], but having their education being impacted–its already impacted anyway, now it’s just going to make that even worse.”
Students who receive occupational therapy at school could theoretically receive those services through telehealth. But therapists need time to prepare. “There’s a big learning curve to doing it [virtually], so going from having it always in person to all of a sudden having to do it online is, whoa hold on, what tools do I need, what skills do I need to learn.” Older therapists who have spent their careers practicing in a certain way might especially need time to learn new technology and adapt.
But even if therapists are prepared to pivot to a remote model, there has to be someone on the other side of the screen. “A lot of what OT looks like online, especially with the really younger kids, the little ones, is educating the families on how to better work with their child, so they can better meet the demands that they need to meet. But if the parents aren’t available, it makes it harder.”
With families experiencing homelessness, lacking reliable wi-fi connection at home, parents working multiple jobs, and kids sharing a single device, there are a lot of obstacles to success for low-income students, especially low-income students with disabilities.
For that reason, Winter sees a large benefit to the blended model. “Even if some kids don’t get all the time they deserve, at least that would give some time to those kids, some time for in-person contact, especially the ones who are impoverished.”
Whichever model the district decides to move forward with, Winter concurs that a decision sooner rather than later is essential for staff to prepare. “No matter what happens with the schools, there’s a way to adapt to all of it to a certain degree, but you have to actually have the foundation, you have to have the staff knowledgeable about what they’re doing. Telling someone the day before something happens is not the way to go.
With the State of Kansas pushing back school start dates, there is a hope educators can be more prepared, and the pandemic can improve by September. “We have a number of incubation periods between now and September 9,” said Dr. Lee Norman, Secretary of the Kansas Department of Health and Environment, during the press conference announcing the policy. “If our state actions continue, the numbers will continue to climb…and there’s no way schools or businesses will be able to return to normal this fall if we continue on this trajectory.”
The actions taken now by community leadership, businesses, and individuals are critical for whether or not education can happen this fall. Dr. Norman says, “Decisions Kansans make in the weeks to come will determine whether we gain control of the spread or let the virus inevitably rage on.”
Goldman is on board with making some changes right now. “So right now, we should just shut everything back down. If this is such a priority, to have students back in school, then we have to do our part to get our numbers back down to where it’s safe, first. Let’s close down Top Golf. Or whatever else is not necessary. And then you can reopen with schools as the priority.”
The more risks families take out in the world—going out to eat, socializing widely—then that risk is transferred to their kids’ classmates and teachers.
Children are going to face the brunt of the decisions made here. For parents who might not be on board with the necessary precautions, Daytona says, “The reason that their kids are having to do all these things, the reason their kids are going to be suffering so much, even if it doesn’t show in that moment, is because the adults in their world chose not to do the right thing for a very long time. Their kids and their communities are about to be the ones that ultimately have to come to terms with the neglect of a bunch of adults. Which is super unfair.”