Kansas education board adds professional development time for teachers grinding through pandemic

Board votes to reverse itself, embraces linking K-12, college spring breaks

The Kansas State Board of Education voted Tuesday to offer K-12 districts the option of adding up to 20 hours of professional development time for educators through April 30 and reversed themselves to endorse alignment of K-12 and college spring break calendars. (Kansas State Board of Education/Kansas Reflector)
The Kansas State Board of Education voted Tuesday to offer K-12 districts the option of adding up to 20 hours of professional development time for educators through April 30 and reversed themselves to endorse alignment of K-12 and college spring break calendars. (Kansas State Board of Education/Kansas Reflector)

TOPEKA — The Kansas Board of Education approved a plan Tuesday to offer up to 20 hours of additional professional development time for public school educators working through the COVID-19 pandemic and voted to reverse themselves after initially rejecting a proposal to urge local school boards to align K-12 spring break with university and college calendars.

Randy Watson, state commissioner of education, said superintendents, teachers, paraprofessionals and aides would welcome more time for instructional collaboration from Dec. 1 to April 30.

He said the state Board of Education pressed districts to burn through allotted professional development hours last summer to prepare for the 2020-21 academic year. Most districts in Kansas complied with the suggestion, he said. Without a change in state policy, he said, the teachers wouldn’t have benefit of opportunities to work together this winter on refining instructional approaches.

The policy adopted 7-1 would reduce the minimum requirement of 1,116 hours of instruction by an amount equal to time devoted to supplemental collaboration among educators.

The 2020 Legislature granted authority to state and local education boards to relax application of the instructional-time mandate during the pandemic emergency. As the coronavirus swept into Kansas in spring 2020, districts weren’t held to the law after school buildings were closed and classroom instruction shifted online.

“There’s no reason today to just give a blanket waiver of that like we had to do in the spring,” Watson said. “This is a limited response and trying to help teachers … through what will be a long winter until we get to the vaccine. It in essence allows school districts to add some staff development to their calendar they don’t have now, because they used most of it. ”

He said a conversation with 20 to 25 school district superintendents left him with the impression it would be well-received by educators who needed to catch their breath.

“It’s an opportunity for staff to get together, take a break and say, ‘We need to regroup here because the last couple weeks have been hard and we need to have a conversation with each other. Maybe we’ve lost staff members to either quarantine or the pandemic and we need to regroup,'” Watson said.

State education board member Jean Clifford, of Garden City, said Kansas educators could benefit from focused conversation about what worked and what didn’t in spring and fall of 2020 and what might be changed next spring and beyond.

“Collaboration and the opportunity for lessons learned and retooling is critical,” said state board member Jim Porter, of Fredonia. “It’s going to make a huge difference in the mental health of our faculties.”

Overland Park board member Steve Roberts, the lone vote against this proposal, said he would have agreed to earmark 80 to 100 hours for professional development given the number of students poorly served by public schools.

“In principle, I have to agree with brother Porter that the mental health of our instructors is very important and this will help,” he said. “But, in my view, seeing so many students in the Kansas City area being underserved, I just don’t think it’s enough. Twenty (hours), to me, seems like putting a Band-Aid on somebody who just took shrapnel that took off a leg. It’s a feel-good talking point.”

Meanwhile, the state Board of Education initially voted down a proposal to recommend individual school boards align spring break with Kansas colleges and universities by March 2022. Later in the meeting, two board members absent when the issue was first considered returned to provide the majority necessary to approe to the idea. It cannot take the form of a mandate on K-12 districts, however, because local school boards control their own academic calendars.

Watson, the state education commissioner, said divergent calendars at K-12 schools and higher education institutions caused difficulty for high school students enrolled in both high school and university courses. To meet academic obligations at both levels, he said, students weren’t able to take spring break vacations with their families.

The issue didn’t rise to prominence in the past because the Kansas Board of Regents hadn’t yet agreed to unify spring breaks at colleges and universities. In addition, the number of students enrolled in high school and college courses has been growing.

State Board of Education member Ben Jones, of Sterling, said he was struck by implications the 10-member state board was essentially directing locally elected boards to fall in line.

“Has the board ever given calendar guidance to districts before?” asked Jones, who was told the board hadn’t done so previously. “I’m struggling with it a little bit. Is this an area that becomes the board’s business?”

State board member Ann Mah of Topeka, who voted for the calendar recommendation, said there was academic and community justification for calendar reform.

“We can’t have 300 districts trying to coordinate with the colleges about how do we do spring break,” Mah said. “We’re trying to lend a hand where we can to coordinate issues.”