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TOPEKA — Kansas education commissioner Randy Watson speaks with cautious optimism that all 500,000 public school students will be back in class for face-to-face instruction with teachers in August.
His perspective includes a disclaimer acknowledging COVID-19 cleverly conceals properties that make it challenging to predict the path of the pandemic three months into the future. Kansas teachers and students have primarily engaged in online learning since mid-March.
"We’re about 90 days now from the opening of school and I think there’s still much to learn about it," Watson said. "We’re cautiously optimistic that we can be back in school face-to-face in August. What that looks like, it’s just too early to tell."
On March 17, Gov. Laura Kelly became the nation’s first governor to order closure of school buildings for the current academic year. It required the K-12 system to create an out-of-the-box learning environment in Kansas that featured a heavy dose of internet instruction, distribution of assignment packets to students and experimentation with teaching groups of 10 or fewer students at a time.
The state Department of Education intends to present a reopening guide to public school districts by July 10, Watson said. It will offer a road map for teachers, staff, students and parents as they figure out locally how to organize instruction, he said.
Watson said restart scenarios should take into account a standard reopening and an alternative blending in-person and online teaching. The playbook needs contingency plans to deal with wide resurgence of the coronavirus, the commissioner said.
It’s possible different infection-control actions may be required in counties with infection clusters, he said.
It is essential the state rebuild school learning environments for students with disabilities and those losing ground academically and emotionally, he said. The health emergency amplified gaps in instruction among economically disadvantaged students, he said.
"There’s certainly been a population of students that during this interruption we, the collective education system, struggled to connect with," Watson said.
Consideration in the reopening will be given to employees who are medically fragile and at greater jeopardy of COVID-19, he said.
The Kansas Department of Health and Environment reported Friday the state identified 7,886 cases of infection that contributed to the death of 172 people. Eighty-four percent of Kansas fatalities occurred among people 65 years of age or older, with the youngest victim 36 years old. Of nearly 8,000 positive tests for the virus in the state, only 4.9% have been under age 18.
Sen. Dinah Sykes, a Democrat from Johnson County, and Sen. Richard Hilderbrand, a Republican from southeast Kansas, serve constituencies experiencing the pandemic in different ways. Johnson County has logged 648 cases and 55 deaths, while Cherokee and Crawford counties combined for 14 cases and one death.
Sykes said her two children have missed in-school activities. Kansas officials need to be cautious about bringing students back together and should explore opportunities for COVID-19 testing to guide integration, she said.
The governor was correct to issue the statewide K-12 closure order, she said.
"I truly believe she saved lives," Sykes said.
Hilderbrand, a Republican from Baxter Springs, said Kansas must renew regular class schedules as soon as possible because the exodus put a heavy burden on children and parents. The March statewide closure order by the governor was hasty, he said.
"I think we should have waited to see how things played out," he said.
In Topeka, Washburn University officials distributed to faculty and staff a four-step plan for gradual return to normal operations on the university campus and at Washburn Tech.
The objective is resumption of face-to-face classes in the fall semester, said Washburn president Jerry Farley. The state’s other colleges and universities are expected to do likewise, despite announcement the California state university system will stick with online classes this fall.
"Washburn University and Washburn Tech will continue to follow the advice and guidance of both state and local officials as we return to the classroom," Farley said. "We know that our students want the face-to-face educational experience that is our hallmark and – barring unforeseen circumstances – we are convinced that we can do that safely for the fall semester."
Farley said Washburn would limit class sizes, emphasize social distancing and expand disinfection procedures.
Washburn's summer classes will be held online. Typically, four out of five classes in summer are taught via the internet.
Not biz as usual
Lee Norman, secretary of the state Department of Health and Environment, said decisions about university and college operations were influenced by health policy, educational requirements, research obligations, student and faculty opinion and public yearning for athletics.
"I don’t think it will be business as usual come this fall. That’s pretty safe to say," Norman said. "It is really going to tax the creativity, I think, of the educators and administrators to think about the ways to mitigate risks."
He said double-occupancy dormitory rooms ought to be avoided, cafeteria patrons should be spread out and sports competition delayed. Testing of all students, faculty and staff for COVID-19 would be futile, he said.
"It would be important to test anybody that is symptomatic, but beyond that I think it would be chasing our tail all the time," he said.
The Kansas Department of Labor altered its banking protocol to allow overnight processing of $99.8 million in federal pandemic unemployment compensation payments, which included the delayed $600 added to eligible claimants’ weekly benefits.
Delia Garcia, secretary at KDOL, said the agency removed their bank’s $75 million daily processing limit to deal with a backlog. The money should reach individual bank accounts Monday or Tuesday and holders of debit cards ought to see it Saturday, she said.
"This is great news for people who have been patiently awaiting their $600 back payments," she said.
The Department of Labor has processed $331 million in supplemental jobless payments authorized by the federal government.