With less than a month before most Kansas school districts were expecting to welcome back teachers and students for the fall semester, students, families and educators are asking when schools will actually open, what that will really look like and who will decide.
Public schools are working to address safety, reflect community needs, ensure quality learning, and help students dealing with additional challenges. Here is what we know – and don’t know – now.
Ordinarily, most decisions about school operations are made by local school boards. They make decisions about the school calendar, hiring staff, what courses will be taught and what programs operated, when and where. However, boards must follow certain state laws, such as offering at least 1,116 hours or 186 days of instruction; federal laws, like the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act; and they must negotiate certain terms of employment with teachers if there is a teacher organization.
That changed last March, when after declaring a state of emergency due to the COVID-19 pandemic, Governor Laura Kelly used her authority under state law to order all schools closed to any more than 10 people until May 29. As part of her order, the Kansas State Board of Education developed a process that allowed districts to waive the minimum days and hours requirements if they adopted “continuous learning plans” for students to receive instruction and learn either online or through lessons sent home. Districts also continued to deliver certain services like serving meals and counseling, but not onsite.
Although these efforts helped meet nutritional and other basic needs and some students continued academic progress through remote learning, there were widespread concerns. Some children lost regular contact and engagement with teachers. Some families lack internet, devices or even physical space for all children to learn online. Some teachers and families did not have the training for effective remote learning.
With the likelihood that the COVID-19 pandemic would continue into the new school year, the Kansas State Department of Education appointed a wide range of educators, parents, state and local officials and health experts to draft guidelines for school reopening. Called “Navigating Change: Kansas’ Guide to Learning and Safe School Operations,” the guidelines envisioned schools operating 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.
The guide has two parts. First, it identifies the “essential” competencies or knowledge and skills students should learn at four “grade bands:” PreK- Grade 2; Grade 3-5; Grades 6-8; and Grades 9-12. 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.
Second, it provides recommendations or suggestions for how to reduce the risk for COVID-19 spread when students and teachers 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.
The guidelines were “accepted” by the State Board of Education last week, but it is important to stress that, with a few exceptions, such as remote learning requirements, everything in the document was 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.
However, on Wednesday, the same day the State Board accepted the plan, Governor Kelly, citing rising numbers of COVID cases in the state, said she would issue an executive order this Monday, July 20, that will require local districts to delay the opening of school until after Labor Day, likely Sept 9. She also said she would issue another order making parts of the Board’s guidelines mandatory, such as masks, social distancing, proper hygiene and daily temperature checks.
The details of these orders – exactly what is required or prohibited – will not be known until they are published, presumably Monday, but that will not be the end of the story.
First, due to changes in state law approved during the special session of the Legislature, any order by the Governor to close schools must be approved by the State Board of Education, so five of the 10 members could block the delay.
Second, the Legislature also approved changes that 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. These provisions are new and have not been tested in court, but it appears counties could “opt out” of the Governor’s order to delay schools until September, or the proposed order on health and safety requirements for schools.
Third, if this isn’t complicated enough, the Governor’s authority to issue these orders is based on her COVID-19 disaster declaration last spring, which was approved by the Legislature only until September 15. That is past the proposed school start date, but could mean that health and safety orders, even if left intact by counties, will expire at that point. The law says any extension of that disaster declaration must be approved by a majority of legislative Leaders on the State Finance Council.
It is also worth noting that local school boards cannot be less restrictive than state or local health mandates, but they can be more so. Therefore, if the Governor’s delay in starting school is rejected by either the State Board or county commission, local boards can choose to delay the start of school on their own. Likewise, if counties reject the Governor’s statewide school health requirements, local school boards can still adopt any part of the State Board’s guidance.
However, school boards cannot be less restrictive than local health requirements. In other words, if a city or county adopts masks or social distancing or limits on gatherings, school boards are required to follow those even if they are more restrictive than state policies or guidelines.
As a result, school boards will have to continue planning for the new school year without yet knowing clearly when they can open or what requirements will be in place, and they will have to balance multiple competing demands. There is the pressure to reopen schools as soon as possible to allow onsite learning and services, student socialization and activities and custodial care so parents can return to work. On the other hand, an unknown number of parents and staff are afraid it is still too dangerous to go back to school, especially if it is not yet clear what safety measures will actually be implemented, and COVID-19 cases are still rising. Students have the option to attend other schools (like home schooling or virtual programs), and staff can request different assignments, request accommodations, resign or retire. Some families and staff will only want to return if strict procedures like masks are in place; others may strongly oppose wearing masks. Changing classroom arrangements, student schedules and hybrid learning are designed to make buildings safer, but could put additional stresses on families and school budgets.
The Kansas education system was designed to spread out governing power, provide checks and balances (like a strong, independent, elected State Board of Education) and local control (cities, counties and school boards) to respond to different local circumstances, needs and values. We are part of a living lesson on how that works.
To answer the questions about when schools 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.
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Mark Tallman is the Kansas Association of School Boards executive director for advocacy. He is the author of The Tallman Education Report.