Opinion: Educators plan for uncertain future

Help is on its way, but reopening Kansas schools won’t be easy. With the state’s economy in free fall and Kansas COVID-19 cases still on the rise, educators are meeting in school districts across Kansas to plan for reopening schools this fall even though start dates remain uncertain.

Planning help is available from Centers for Disease Control and Prevention guidelines, and federal legislation is ready to provide funds for school health and broadband technology.

Meanwhile, an Oklahoma state representative announced through his weekly report that the state legislature’s budget reduction for the coming year “protected” schools because federal relief funds would fully offset Oklahoma’s 3% K-12 school funding reduction.

Before “creative budgeting” gains a foothold in Kansas, let’s remember that federal relief funds are for costs incurred by the virus and may not cover all those expenses. New routines will likely require additional consumable supplies and equipment for school sanitation. Food service changes and individual health checks such as temperature-taking will continue indefinitely.

The anticipated broadband technology funding cannot provide computers/tablets for each student or ongoing upgrades.

School health and technology requirements will increase the workload and could require more teachers as well as increase operating costs. Despite this, offering remote learning for each school’s students will be necessary to address possible future outbreaks of COVID-19 or new emergencies that may require students to remain at home.

The virus taught us that fully online access for students is necessary, but it can’t replace traditional schooling.

Our virus lockdown renewed our sense that human connection is fundamental and crucial to the full experience of individual learning, teamwork and community building that traditional public schools bring.

Consequently, the return to school means creating two systems, remote and traditional, because we can’t ignore a future need to learn from home and because in-person school is essential both to learning and getting Kansans back to work.

Each school district is responsible to find its own way to meet the challenges working within three CDC guidelines “where feasible.” Each option is costly and problematic. They are:

Traditional school. The problem is all health safety guidelines published in fall would need to be met because no school would accept the moral or legal responsibility of reopening with even one child in danger of infection. Providing classrooms, cafeterias and buses with 6-foot social distancing would be expensive.

All remote. This option is probably the least added expense to schools and safest for students and educators but costly to families who would have to provide home support for children. Moreover, its effectiveness is questioned by parents and researchers.

Blended. This option is some combination of remote and traditional. Proposals include traditional school for elementary students using high school space for separation while middle and high school students study online. Other suggestions are a longer school day with half of students attending in the morning and half in the afternoon; or having students alternate two days in school and two online with academically challenged students attending school a third day each week.

Given current tax revenue projections, schools may face a state budget cut. But before we take a hatchet to K-12 school funding, we need to take a realistic look at the considerable added expense of restarting our schools and provide ways to “come back better” for Kansas students.

— Sharon Hartin Iorio is dean emerita at Wichita State University College of Education.


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