Classes resume in one of the last Kansas school districts to return to in-person learning

photo by: Charlie Riedel/AP Photo

Freshman Hugo Bautista eats lunch separated from classmates by plastic dividers at Wyandotte County High School in Kansas City, Kan. on the first day of in-person learning Wednesday, March 31, 2021.

KANSAS CITY, KAN. — Students lined up outside schools in Kansas City, Kan., for the first time in more than a year Wednesday as in-person classes resumed in one of the last districts in the state still learning mostly virtually because of the COVID-19 pandemic.

Wednesday is the date lawmakers set for public schools to begin offering in-person classes in a bill that is awaiting Democratic Gov. Laura Kelly’s signature. Most Kansas schools already returned to in-person classes, but the Kansas City, Kan., area was hit particularly hard by the pandemic, and that district had allowed only a small number of students to return to classrooms before now.

The district moved up the date for the rest of the students to return from April 5 in part because of the legislation, although it already had been moving in that direction, said spokesman Edwin Birch.

Some who filed through the doors of the 1,700-student Wyandotte County High School lost grandparents to the coronavirus, took on part-time jobs to support their families and came dangerously close to dropping out.

“Everybody has faced some type of trauma and is dealing with it, so we have to be aware of all that,” said the school’s principal, Mary Stewart, as she walked around greeting students. “That is the first step to start to see, ‘This is who I am in 3D, not just 2D.’ That is what today starts with. Really the priority right off the bat is checking in. Are we OK?”

Also top-of-mind, she explained, were measures to keep the virus at bay. Those included plastic shields on desks, assigned seating, staggered passing periods and rolling dismissals.

“If we don’t have a feeling of safety, then nobody is going to be learning,” she said. “Everybody is going to be on edge.”

Teacher Claire Hall explained that at one point they were having trouble making contact with 10% to 20% of students who take classes in the school’s health academy.

“We are all getting used to what this new world is and what it is like. But I am really happy we are coming back, and I think that our kids need it,” Hall said.

Melina Gomez Castillo, a 15-year-old freshman, was often tasked over the past year with keeping her 8-year-old brother on track while they and their 13-year-old sister learned virtually. She was eager to lose that responsibility.

“My sister, she likes school a lot,” she said. “But my brother, he is not into his school lately because of the pandemic, so I had to make sure he was doing it.”

Sang Thawng, a 17-year-old junior, said he was initially pretty happy when school shut down last spring. But the novelty had long since worn off, replaced by a host of challenges.

“It just got more complicated the whole situation,” said Thawng, who noted the discrimination faced by Asians like himself amid the pandemic. “Things just become harder and harder to take in with everything going on.”

The move to reopen comes as the state has seen a sharp decline in new COVID-19 cases in recent months as the vaccine rollout gains steam. State data shows that 27.5% of the state’s 2.9 million residents had received at least one shot as of Wednesday. Meanwhile, the number of cases reported over the past two days rose by 510 to 302,372 and the number of deaths increased by 11 to 4,913.


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