Kansas education commissioner Randy Watson shared Tuesday academic struggles during the first 18 months of the pandemic with the State Board of Education. He warned that graduation rates, which have risen steadily since 2015, will likely decline this year. (Screen capture of Kansas State Department of Education)
TOPEKA — In the first year and a half of the pandemic, Kansas schools have seen a troubling decrease in enrollment and attendance and an increase in truancy and chronic absenteeism.
Kansas education commissioner Randy Watson told the State Board of Education on Tuesday that more than 15,000 fewer students were enrolled in Kansas schools in 2021 than 2019, and the rate of chronic absenteeism has risen more than 4%. He said the pandemic likely has affected nearly every measure of academic success and social-emotional health.
The warning comes after Kansas saw a record high in graduation rates for students with disabilities or in poverty, along with English language learners. The state has also seen postsecondary success rates improve, but Watson warned during his annual report to the board that the pandemic offered challenges never before seen in academics.
“The last 18 months have been the hardest on our state, and schools are a microcosm of that, in the history of our public and private schools,” Watson said.
While graduation and dropout rates are not yet available for 2021, Watson warned those would likely take a turn for the worse. He compared the effect of the pandemic to the unpredictability of a tornado and the widespread destruction of a hurricane.
This “storm” caused by COVID-19 comes at a time when educators across the state are working to shift the way Kansas students are taught to focus on “soft skills,” in addition to academic achievement. The Kansas Can Program launched in 2017 and has seen mixed results.
“In some ways, we were ahead of schedule (on the program) going into 2020,” Watson said. “You’re not going to be able to say anything other than how the pandemic affects us. We’re living it. We don’t know yet.”
Many of the academic achievement issues occurring across the country are reflected in Kansas, Watson said. For example, formal truancy paperwork filed in 2021 was 2,239, up from 767 in 2019.
The number of students learning remotely jumped from zero to 34,104 as students were forced to quarantine to reduce the spread of COVID-19. The state department of education saw the number of parents refusing to allow their students to take the state exam rise to 1,964.
A key to weathering the virus noted by both board members and Watson was focusing on a structured education plan. Of concern to Wichita state board member Betty Arnold was the use of Individual Plans of Study across the state.
These plans are designed and required for every middle-school Kansan to identify career clusters and interests to aid in attaining a postsecondary degree.
“We know with the individual plan of study there are some districts that really are validating and supporting that, and then there are districts that do just enough,” Arnold said. “That’s a great concern because what kind of plan would we have to make sure that districts statewide are appreciating the value of the individualized plan of study and are implementing it?”
With employers requiring higher educational attainment, education officials have put more emphasis on helping students explore potential careers.
Watson said like any new approach or remodel, getting all districts up to speed on best IPS practices would take time. He pointed to DeSoto and Piper schools as “gold level” districts using the plans well.
“We’re not there, but we’ll get there,” Watson said. “We have a rubric. We’re measuring every school against that, and when you get to the gold level you have all of those things in place that would lead to the deep understanding of having a good IPS.”
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