Kansas schools seek balance between best practices for education, safety

Students and Faculty at Wichita Public Schools will have two extra days of rest and recovery over Thanksgiving break as the district, like much of the state, faces a teacher shortage. (Submitted to Kansas Reflector)

TOPEKA As Thanksgiving approaches and COVID-19 case numbers rise, Kansas school officials are contemplating how to best alter plans to protect students and faculty.

School boards and districts across the state are instituting new safety precautions as concerns grow over how long schools can remain open for face-to-face learning. Teacher staffing in Kansas is also bottoming out as a growing number of educators are in quarantine.

At Wichita Public Schools, students and staff will now have an additional two days of Thanksgiving vacation, providing a full week off from the classroom. They also decided Nov. 9 to keep middle and high school students remote until the end of the second semester.

The decision was made after the district faced a shortage of teachers and substitutes as many were forced to quarantine after contact with someone carrying the virus, said Susan Arensman, a spokeswoman for the Wichita Public Schools.

While the district is hopeful the extended break will allow time for everyone to recuperate physically and emotionally, she said, administrators are advising families to be prepared should Sedgwick County case numbers continue to trend in the wrong direction.

“Wichita Public Schools is a reflection of our community, which is a reflection of the state, and as cases keep rising, so are cases of COVID among our staff,” Arensman said. “We had sent a message last week to elementary families asking them to have a plan in place in case we have to pivot in schools, and students who were going in person now need to learn remotely.”

As cases rise, districts and educators fear a similar crisis to the beginning of the pandemic may be mounting. Statewide staffing shortages are forcing several schools to revisit academic and safety plans.

The Shawnee Mission school district announced middle and high school students in the district would return to remote learning in an effort to maintain in-person learning for elementary students. The school district recently reported it was becoming increasingly difficult to adequately staff classrooms.

As of last week, more than 800 students and staff within the district were isolating or in quarantine. Students will begin remote learning from Nov. 30 through Jan. 22, 2021.

In Blue Valley, district administrators took similar steps, returning middle and high school students to remote-only learning between Thanksgiving and winter break. 

“The change in learning modes from Nov. 30 to Dec. 22 will allow us to focus limited resources, including substitutes, on the youngest students and students with disabilities, who are least able to benefit from distance learning,” said Tonya Merrigan, superintendent of Blue Valley Schools, adding “additional school closures are possible if the district cannot staff buildings with qualified substitutes.”

Reports from substitute staffing agencies indicate finding qualified teachers is growing increasingly difficult. Mark Tallman, associate executive director for advocacy and communications at the Kansas Association of School Boards, said districts now face a difficult decision about how to handle these shortages.

“Districts are faced with this terrible dilemma, which is do you do you back away from in-person learning, knowing that creates great difficulties for students, for families and for learning, or do you try to keep going in the situation where you literally may not have the staff to do it,” Tallman said. “The more you press ahead, it may cost you more staff in the future if people continue to get sick.”

The rise in cases and staff needing to quarantine is increasing anxiety among Kansas educators, said Marcus Baltzell, a spokesman for the Kansas National Education Association. Baltzell said educators want to keep education in-person, but not if current conditions persist.

“We say this over and over again, but things are becoming unsustainable,” he said. “Really, what this all boils down to is that there are a lot of moving standards out there about what’s safe and what isn’t. I think that’s really increasing the anxiety in educators.”

To provide insight into the day-to-day concerns of educators, KNEA is producing a series of testimonies submitted by teachers across the state. 

In one video, Megan Epperson, an elementary teacher, likened the experience to that of Apollo 13 — a mission to the moon that was aborted after an oxygen tank ruptured.

“We are facing life and death options,” Epperson said. “We are trying to look at the duct tape we have in front of us and saying how can we make this into something that is least harmful and most beneficial knowing that no solution is ideal. It’s never a good idea to get a space shuttle through space with duct tape.”

Concerns over teacher shortages and rising COVID-19 cases are not just impacting more urban areas. In Scott City, where case numbers are still relatively low, the school has been able to maintain in-person learning so far. While it would like to remain that way, district superintendent Jamie Rumford said, school leaders are taking it every few weeks at a time.

South of Scott City, case numbers are spiking in Finney County. Garden City Public Schools were all in-person until Nov. 6, but the district has pivoted to a hybrid model with some schools dealing with staffing issues and shifting to remote learning.

If current data trends do not improve by Nov. 20, the district will move all students and schools to remote learning, said Roy Cessna, a spokesman for Garden City Public Schools.

“Because of the higher cases of COVID amongst our staff, we just can’t effectively and safely instruct students in those schools,” Cessna said. “As the cases start to move down in the community, and those gating triggers are not being hit, we would move back in our operational level, back down to face to face instruction.”