Lessons about education we hope Kansans have learned from the pandemic experience

January 16, 2021 3:50 am

A young student watches lesson online and studies from home. (Getty Images)

The Kansas Reflector welcomes opinion pieces from writers who share our goal of widening the conversation about how public policies affect the day-to-day lives of people throughout our state. Mark Farr is president of the Kansas National Education Association.

As we look toward the distribution of a vaccine and the prospect of finally getting the COVID-19 pandemic under control, many of us have been sharing the life lessons we have learned.

Perhaps we can now better appreciate things we once took for granted. Things like eating in a restaurant, gathering for holidays and special events, or cheering for our favorite team in a crowded arena. And there are things we have perhaps rediscovered and hope to continue to enjoy — riding a bicycle, taking a walk around the neighborhood, and enjoying the outdoors.

We see signs posted outside healthcare and assisted living facilities that proclaim, “Heroes Work Here!” We all have much greater respect for the individuals from nursing assistants to nurses, orderlies, physicians and all support personnel who work in healthcare. They continue to face struggles in under-resourced and over-burdened workplaces.

We see also that the less obvious benefits of healthy public schools are more appreciated than ever. Few would dispute that quality education is key to an individual’s future success, but we are reminded that our schools are critical to our communities’ economic prosperity. It is now clear to anyone who has been paying any attention that when our children are not in school with their teachers, many parents struggle with balancing work and the learning, social and emotional growth of children.

Recently we’ve had more and more calls for schools to open regardless of the impact of COVID-19. We know that the impact on children — particularly young children — is far less grave than for adults. We can’t forget, however, that adults staff schools. Even medical professionals have indicated that in-person learning benefits — particularly for our youngest students — outweigh the risks of infection for those students. KNEA supports this recommendation made by medical experts such as the Kansas Chapter of the American Academy of Pediatrics because it is a two-part recommendation. Sadly, many people have ignored the second part of KAAP’s statement, which refers to the conditions of safety required for any in-person learning:

However, we know that schools do not operate in a bubble protected from society at large, and everyone must do their part. Safe, in-person learning can only occur when we implement proven measures to ensure protection against transmission of the virus among our students, patrons, and staff. Mitigating the risk of transmission to and from school into the homes of students, education professionals, and the broader community keeps our schools open and our students learning. 

During this public health crisis, many school buildings have been closed to most patrons, students and some staff. Some schools have operated in a hybrid plan attempting to balance remote and in-person learning. Some have been fully opened with mitigation procedures in place. Educators have done everything in their power to safely provide an education to our students. As a result, our schools have not become “super spreader” locations. But at the same time, they have not been immune to the impacts of the virus.

Students have contracted and carried the virus into schools. But since many young people appear asymptomatic, the adults in our buildings are at greater risk. Teachers and support personnel have contracted the virus leading to needed quarantines and teacher absences. In fear of the virus, substitute teachers are not available to staff the classrooms of teachers fighting infection. Yet when schools implement needed safety measures, including a return to remote learning, many policymakers and other elected officials have responded in knee-jerk fashion criticizing schools, staff and administrators.

This pandemic has clearly taught us of the critical nexus of strong public schools and economic prosperity. However, have our leaders learned this lesson, or have they been distracted by party politics?

If the rhetoric from policymakers is any indication, perhaps there is still much to be learned. As an example, prior to the pandemic, schools that invested in emerging technology for students such as iPads and Chromebooks were scrutinized and labeled as fiscally irresponsible. We wonder if efforts to prepare students and support learning will now be lauded as forward-thinking. And as teachers struggled with the sudden and unforeseen need to move all learning online last spring, we can’t help but wonder why Kansas lawmakers repeatedly cut or zeroed out funding for professional development.

We must recognize that our schools and communities are tightly linked. In a pandemic — or any emergency — schools cannot save a community in which elected officials and the general public choose to ignore the call for help. Schools depend on the strength and common sense of the community.

This is not about Republicans or Democrats. This should not be yet another game of political football. Our future depends on three things:

  1. Stopping the spread of this virus so we can…
  2. Keep our schools staffed and open so Kansans can…
  3. Reopen our businesses and reinvigorate our economy.

We all have some learning to do.

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Mark Farr
Mark Farr

Mark Farr is president of the Kansas National Education Association. He is a high school science and technology teacher on leave from Nickerson High School in Nickerson-South Hutchinson USD 309. His article, "Nickerson High School Physical Science After School Tutoring Program" was published in the Journal of Critical Inquiry Into Curriculum and Instruction; it reviewed the after-school tutoring program Farr piloted and built to help struggling students succeed in physical science classes. Farr held several leadership positions in EA #309, Nickerson-South Hutchinson, a KNEA local affiliate, before he was elected as Kansas NEA secretary-treasurer, vice president and then president in 2014.