Oct 17, 2020 10:15 AM

INSIGHT KANSAS: Living with COVID-19 is challenging Kan. schools

Posted Oct 17, 2020 10:15 AM
Sharon Hartin Iorio is Dean Emerita Wichita State University College of Education.
Sharon Hartin Iorio is Dean Emerita Wichita State University College of Education.

COVID-19 is threatening the way Kansas schools do their work.  Randy Watson, state education commissioner, told members of the Kansas Association of School Boards recently that the way schools deliver education currently is “not sustainable.”  

Although 1A to small 4A schools are returning to traditional five-day-a-week on-site classes because they can keep class sizes to fewer than 15 and require masks and social distancing, most larger schools are obliged to operate differently.  They are using all online, remote or hybrid models where students alternate attending on-site for part of the week and study remotely the remainder of the week.  

Kansas is not alone in this. These school schedules are in operation from California to South Carolina to comply with COVID-19 safety measures.  

Outside the small on-site schools, almost no one is satisfied.  Students not only miss their friends and the social learning that comes with that; they have trouble working successfully with remote learning and often need at home help.  Yet, the adults in their lives are either overextended from working at home and supporting their children’s learning or work outside the home and cannot be there to help their children.  

Teachers are extremely overloaded with instruction for both on-site and remote lessons while grappling with new distance-learning technology.  Administrators are overwhelmed with the details involved in implementing the changes and constant fluctuation in school-wide COVID-19 infections, plus everyone wants a stable football schedule.  People just wish things to get back to normal, but they can’t completely.  

The education system was totally unprepared for COVID-19.  

In the midst of a statewide teacher shortage, schools hadn’t fully recovered from the Brownback years.  Teachers and students didn’t have new learning technology or know how to use it.  Class sizes in city schools could push the high 20s.   Schools needed better health safety protection including more effective HVAC air filtering.

Pressed to meet the COVID-19 challenge, Watson has offered ways to get back on-site fulltime:  Use school gyms and libraries and community venues like churches for classrooms to provide enough social distancing.  Assign non-teaching personnel, retired teachers and substitutes as teachers for the added classrooms and provide district contingency funds for one year and federal COVID-19 funding to cover the added expenses.  

Watson should be commended for working within existing financial resources to bring traditional schooling back.  Additional support will come from Governor Kelly’s new Office of Broadband Development with $49 million of CARES Act funding, some of which will benefit the estimated 156,000 Kansas students who lack online access to complete their assignments.  CARES Act funding also will also improve school cleaning and PPE. 

Even with these improvements there are not enough extant resources to run hybrid models successfully or return to safe on-site learning for medium-to-large schools while the pandemic rages.  Neither are there enough instructional resources to restore the academic achievement students lost while at home this spring and summer.  

There’s no easy solution—it’s wrong to return to fulltime school without following COVID-19 safety rules and it’s wrong to make everyday people—children, parents, teachers, school administrators--endure an unmanageable situation because of COVID-19’s effect on schools.

Next week, U.S. Senate Republicans plan to bring to a vote additional stimulus legislation that includes help for public schools.  While it won’t solve all the problems, All Kansans should press our legislators to back this funding. 

Sharon Hartin Iorio is Dean Emerita Wichita State University College of Education.