With schools struggling to adapt to the ever changing COVID-19 situation in the state, the Kansas State Board of Education is looking for ways to relax some of the requirements school districts must follow.
However, the board won’t yet decide on potentially lowering the number of required instructional hours Kansas schools must provide for students.
At the board’s Tuesday meeting, state education commissioner Randy Watson updated the school board on some of the relaxed requirements already in place for school districts, such as allowing some assessments to take place virtually or extending deadlines for certain kinds of paperwork and funding applications. Other requirements, such as individualized education programs for special education students, are still very much in place, Watson said.
One requirement that hasn’t yet been relaxed is the 1,116 hours of instruction that Kansas schools must provide by state statute. While the same statute gives the state board of education the authority to waive that requirement in the event of an emergency, Watson said that in his opinion, it would be irresponsible to waive that requirement for all Kansas schools this early in the school year.
Watson said he would prefer to wait until schools have a better understanding of COVID-19’s effects on operations during the winter months, which he said look like they will be the worst for schools.
Although Kansas schools were allowed to apply for waivers to the minimum hour requirement last spring, that process came after Gov. Laura Kelly ordered schools closed, rather than from a decision from the board.
Board member Steve Roberts, R-Overland Park, said he disagreed with Watson and thought it would be irresponsible to wait until March to make a decision on the learning hour requirement. He asked Watson about the possibility of allowing schools to meet an alternative 900-hour minimum, on the condition that schools commit to returning students to full, on-site learning. Watson said that while the board could unilaterally act on lowering the minimum amount of hours, he wasn’t sure if the board could legally tie such a change to a district’s operations.
After most school districts postponed the start of school by about two weeks in August, districts likewise extended the school year or eliminated breaks or built-in snow days during the year. Given the ability to hold remote instruction this year, many districts have likewise announced that they won’t have traditional snow days this school year, so as to avoid extending the school year even further.
Other districts, Watson said, have said they will not hold remote learning during inclement weather, since snow days are "like a tradition." He said either option is valid, and schools could even find ways to implement learning objectives, such as physical education and math, into typical snow day activities, such as sledding down a snowy hill.
While schools are still required to provide lunches on those remote learning days, Watson said there may be changes coming to those federal statutes to release districts from that obligation if inclement weather makes school operations dangerous.
Even though Watson said he wasn’t yet comfortable relaxing the minimum instruction time requirement in general, he believes it will be prudent to give school districts some kind of "calculated relief" during the winter months, especially at the tail end of a stressful fall semester. He said the Kansas State Department of Education still needs to develop details on what that relief could entail, but board members broached the idea of allowing schools to take days off for mental health.
"What does the literature say about winter? Depression goes up," Watson said. "We get less sunlight, it gets colder, flu and cold seasons create strain on hospitals, and if the literature is correct for this winter — which we don’t know yet — those will be coupled on top of the pandemic."
Watson reiterated previous comments stressing the need for schools to make long-term plans, even though most attention has to go to addressing short-term needs.
"We have to act as though this is going to be with us for the rest of the school year," Watson said. "And I think for a long time, we’ve acted as though if we just get through some point, it’s going to be better. There will be better at some point when there’s a vaccine available and people have taken two doses of that ... but we’re a long ways from that."
Board members also said they preferred to come up with a plan on the minimum amount of instructional hours sooner rather than later, since the Legislature meets in January and could develop its own plans for school operations. They charged Watson with developing options to present to the board at its December meeting.
"(COVID-19) ain’t going away," said board member Jim McNiece, R-Wichita. "Regardless of who is at the top of the country and leading, we’re going to have a lot of challenges. And I think we’re just scratching the surface of those challenges. This is going to be a tough year."
Several students and adults, including two physicians, from Johnson County spoke during the board’s public comment period, urging board members to direct schools to open for in-person learning. The state board of education has kept a largely hands-off approach to those decisions, however, opting instead to allow local districts and school boards to make their own decisions.