Will all Kansas schools be required to have in-person learning by March 26? It's possible

Titus Wu
Topeka Capital-Journal
Sen. Ty Masterson, R-Andover, speaks to a journalist on Feb. 25, 2021, before a hearing over his Back To School Act, which would require in-person learning options after March 26.

After almost a year of many Kansas students going through remote or hybrid learning in schools adjusting to the COVID-19 pandemic, state politicians are ready to move on.

Lawmakers are looking at requiring Kansas schools after March 26 to offer a full-time, in-person attendance option for every student in a bill heard Thursday.

Senate President Ty Masterson, R-Andover, is sponsoring the bill, almost ensuring the bill will move on and pass out of the Legislature.

"We need to have an option for kids to have ... in-person option," he said. "It doesn't say every school has to have every kid in it, but every kid needs to have that option."

Masterson and other supporters of the bill point to how conditions are improving, federal funding is in the system and that the governor has announced a vaccination plan earmarking doses for school teachers and staff. They also noted the negative impact that remote learning has had for some children.

"My friend's daughter is taking antidepressants, and she's in middle school, because she cannot handle her new normal," said Laura Klingensmith, a Johnson County resident, also saying the situation had led to suicides.

But many public education officials opposed the bill. Mark Tallman, of the Kansas Association of School Boards, was concerned it had many gaps in it, such as for cases where a student is suspended or expelled or during some weather emergencies.

"This decision has been and should be made by local school boards who take into consideration what is appropriate in each school district given the local conditions," said Lara Bors, president of the Garden City Unified School District 457 Board of Education, using the argument of local control, a typical Republican talking point.

But Sen. Beverly Gossage, R-Eudora, implied that school boards haven't listened to what local constituents wanted on this issue.

"Sen. (Molly) Baumgardner and I went to a gym full of parents and students completely frustrated with their local school board, and they felt that the school board was leaning upon the recommendations of the governor," she said.

Opponents also brought up other concerns, such as the safety of teachers and staff, and stressed that they also wanted to be back in person, just with the right conditions at the right time.

Sen. Renee Erickson, R-Wichita, asked bill opponents why in their arguments there was no big emphasis on the needs of students who have been affected by the remote learning situation.

"What schools' boards are trying to do is weigh not just the student learning needs, but the interest of the entire community," answered Tallman.

In the end, Republicans tried to portray this as optional as possible, with many calling it a "nudge."

"There is no mandate," said Baumgardner, a Louisburg Republican. 

Reading of the bill text, however, indicates it does mandate schools to offer an in-person option. It is worth noting, though, there is no listed punishment or repercussion for failing to follow this act in the bill.