Local control takes shape as school districts across Kansas plan for reopening

By: - July 29, 2020 11:22 am
Social distancing is practiced in this July 22 meeting at Salina High South to to plan the reopening of the Salina school district. (Salina Public Schools)

Social distancing is practiced in this July 22 meeting at Salina High South to to plan the reopening of the Salina school district. (Salina Public Schools)

Many of Kansas’ largest public school districts are pushing their start date until after Labor Day to provide additional preparation time in light of a surge in COVID-19 infections — but smaller and mid-size districts are taking more immediate measures or offering hybrid learning opportunities.

School boards are making these decisions in the wake of the Kansas State Board of Education opting for local control of when and how to reopen. The board in a 5-5 vote declined to uphold an executive order by Gov. Laura Kelly that would have pushed the start of in-person K-12 instruction to after Labor Day.

Educators and students adapted to online learning following spring break, when Kelly became the first governor in the country to shut down public schools at the onset of the pandemic. Republican lawmakers in the Legislature stripped Kelly of her unilateral authority to close schools in the bill passed during the special session in June.

The Kansas Department of Health and Environment on Monday said there are now 26,172 cases of COVID-19 in Kansas and 335 deaths from the virus, an increase of 1,063 cases and nine deaths over the weekend. Those figures prompted some school boards to emphasize flexibility in their plans.

“We need to allow fluidity in our plan so, in the event of a change in situation or guidance, we can move to a different platform,” said Jennifer Camien, spokeswoman for Salina Public Schools.

With a wide range of reported COVID-19 cases from county to county, each district is taking a different approach to reopening this fall. Start dates range from mid-August in some smaller, western Kansas school districts through Sept. 9th and beyond in larger, metropolitan areas.

 

Wait and see

The Shawnee Mission school district, which serves more than 27,000 students as the third-largest district in the state, plans to begin classes after Labor Day.

The Shawnee Mission school district is taking a wait and see approach as COVID-19 cases rise, said district spokesman David Smith. (Submitted)
The Shawnee Mission school district is taking a wait and see approach as COVID-19 cases rise, said district spokesman David Smith. (Submitted)

“We are still very wary of this virus,” said David Smith, spokesman for the district. “We are putting a priority on the health of our students and staff.”

Shawnee Mission schools are in Johnson County, which currently has the highest COVID-19 case count in Kansas with 4,717 cases.

The board has yet to set an exact start date, Smith said, in part because of the high case count, emphasizing a need to take things as they come as Labor Day approaches.

“We need to make sure we are prepared for whatever learning environment we return to,” Smith said.

Shawnee Mission draft plans follow the governor’s executive order and Kansas Department of Health and Environment guidance on wearing masks and temperature checks, Smith said

Wichita Unified School District, the state’s largest district by enrollment, also will resume after Labor Day weekend with three options for parents and students — in-person instruction; MySchoolRemote, an online learning platform; or a full-time virtual school for increased flexibility and personalization.

 

Hybrid model

Topeka Public Schools will start the school year with all students returning to online learning Sept. 9, then transition to a combination of in-person and online learning.

Topeka Public Schools superintendent Tiffany Anderson said her district solicited feedback from families, students and staff for its "Transforming Topeka Together" reopening plan. (Submitted)
Topeka Public Schools superintendent Tiffany Anderson said her district solicited feedback from families, students and staff for its “Transforming Topeka Together” reopening plan. (Submitted)

“We solicited comments from our parents, students and several communities for our plan and from that we found a need for a variety of options,” said Topeka Public Schools superintendent Tiffany Anderson. “Some will be on a hybrid rotation. Others may be learning 100% online. We will also provide the opportunity to change the learning method.”

Hybrid learning will be conducted in two groups, for social distancing purposes. One group of students will attend class in-person on Monday and Tuesday, and the second group will attend Thursday and Friday. Both groups will learn online when not in the classroom. On Wednesday, the building will be sanitized.

“In addition to requiring masks and temperature checks, we want to provide time to make sure our learning environments are clean,” Anderson said.

Salina’s school district also will follow a hybrid rotation but will reopen Aug. 31, earlier than the governor’s recommendation. In addition to in-person classes, there will be an online learning option.

“Should we need to push back our in-person classes, our plan allows us to fall back on our online platform,” Camien said.

 

Forging ahead

Some smaller districts are planning to reopen in August with low case counts in their area.

Even with no known COVID-19 cases in Rawlins County, superintendent Eric Stoddard is cautious about opening too abruptly. (Submitted)
Even with no known COVID-19 cases in Rawlins County, superintendent Eric Stoddard is cautious about opening too abruptly. (Submitted)

Schools in the Greeley County school district, which only has three cases of COVID-19, are opting to reopen Aug. 17.

According to the district reopening plan, masks will be required in accordance with health guidelines, but teachers can remove them if they impede their teaching ability as determined by school administration.

The Rawlins County school district — which serves 365 students and is one of two counties without a known coronavirus case in Kansas — will offer both an in-person and online option.

“We’re glad to be able to start when appropriate for us, but we are still cautious,” said Rawlins County school district superintendent Eric Stoddard. “We don’t have any cases now, but as we’ve seen, this virus can spread quickly, and that could change by the time before school starts for us as much as it could for larger districts.”

Rawlins schools are scheduled to begin Aug. 20, but Stoddard said the reopening may move back to Aug. 25, pending board approval.

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Noah Taborda
Noah Taborda

Noah Taborda started his journalism career in public radio at KBIA in Columbia, Missouri, covering local government and producing an episode of the podcast Show Me The State while earning his bachelor’s degree in radio broadcasting at the University of Missouri School of Journalism. Noah then made a short move to Kansas City, Missouri, to work at KCUR as an intern on the talk show Central Standard and then in the newsroom, reporting on daily news and feature stories.

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