Kansas educators eager for classroom learning, with attention to student safety and anxiety

By: - August 10, 2021 7:35 am

Mariah Vaughn, a 15-year-old Highland Park High School student, prepares to receive a COVID-19 vaccine during Monday’s vaccine clinic at Topeka High School. (Pool photo by Evert Nelson/The Capital-Journal)

TOPEKA — Kansas educators refuse to be discouraged by the latest onslaught from a deadly virus that already has complicated their profession for the past 18 months.

In fact, they are “bubbling” with excitement as they prepare for the start of a new school year with in-person learning, says Sherri Schwanz, a middle school music teacher who now serves as president of the Kansas National Education Association.

The joy is contagious.

Sherri Schwanz, president of the Kansas teachers union, says teachers are eager for the return of in-person learning in the new school year. (Submitted)

“That sparkle in the students’ eyes. The bounciness of kids running to the schoolhouse, so excited to see their teachers,” Schwanz said. “Teachers are just as excited.”

Student safety remains the top priority, and educators now have to balance academic needs exacerbated by remote learning with social and emotional needs caused by isolation.

But throughout the pandemic, educators have demonstrated their ability to pivot through new challenges.

“Our educators went above and beyond to ensure every one of our students succeeded,” Schwanz said. “It may not have been book, pen and paper, but they’ve learned resilience. Our students learned how to do things differently than ever before. They learned that it’s OK not to be OK, and to seek help for that. But our educators are so excited to be back with our students.”

All eyes are now on the delta variant and rising case numbers as students prepare to return to class. Students ages 12 and older can get a COVID-19 vaccine, but many of them, and their parents, have yet to do so. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention reports just 54.5% of eligible Kansans are fully vaccinated, although 64.9% have now received at least one dose.

The threat is evident in the latest update from the Kansas Department of Health and Environment. The agency reported 23 new deaths from COVID-19 between Friday and Monday, as well as 57 more hospitalizations and 2,669 cases. Last week, the agency added 38 deaths to a grim total that now stands at 5,322 since March 1, 2020.

U.S. Education secretary Miguel Cardona and second gentleman Douglas Emhoff toured a back-to-school vaccine clinic Monday at Topeka High School, where they stressed the importance of practicing mitigation strategies, according to a pool report.

“We owe it to our students not to allow more disruption, and we know what works,” Cardona said.

U.S. Secretary of Education Miguel Cardona talks with students Ryleigh McLaury and Kelm Lear during a visit to Topeka High School. (Pool photo by Evert Nelson/The Capital-Journal)

Schools are in better shape than they were a year ago, said Caren Howes, a social worker at Christa McAuliffe Elementary School in the Shawnee Mission School District. That’s because educators understand more about the pandemic now, and how it impacts families, students and staff.

In Howes’ district, there is now at least one full-time social worker in every school. She has seen increased anxiety among students brought on by staying at home and not interacting with peers or participating in sports and other activities.

“We’re going to be OK,” says Caren Howes, a social worker at Christa McAuliffe Elementary School in the Shawnee Mission School District. “Kids are going to catch up.” (Submitted)

Teachers are thinking about individualized learning plans, Howes said, because they don’t yet know how remote learning impacted students. Some thrived, while others struggled. At the same time, instructional coaches and social workers are preparing to address emotional needs.

“We’re going to be OK,” Howes said. “Kids are going to catch up. We’re going to get them where they need to be. I have absolutely no worries about that. I think we’re going to be just fine. It’s just going to be a little bit of a process.”

Students in the weight room at Topeka High School relayed anxiety to Cardona and Emhoff, according to the pool report.

Senior NiJaree Canady said she was concerned schools couldn’t return to normal because of low vaccination rates and the rise in COVID-19 cases.

“My basketball and softball seasons got stolen from me,” Canady said. “We didn’t have the vaccine, and now we have it. If you don’t want another season taken, we need to get vaccinated.”

The visit to Topeka by federal leaders comes as 50 million students are about to return to classrooms nationwide.

According to the pool report, Emhoff said people could avoid pain and heartbreak by getting a free, safe and effective vaccine like the ones being offered at the Topeka High School clinic.

“You’ve seen the heartbreaking videos of people in the hospital, and what do they say? They say I wish I would have gotten vaccinated,” Emhoff said. “Let’s not have any more of those videos.”

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Sherman Smith
Sherman Smith

Sherman Smith is the Kansas Press Association’s journalist of the year. He has written award-winning news stories about the instability of the Kansas foster care system, misconduct by government officials, sexual abuse, technology, education, and the Legislature. He previously spent 16 years at the Topeka Capital-Journal. A lifelong Kansan, he graduated from Emporia State University in 2004 as a Shepherd Scholar with a degree in English.