State Board of Ed: Elementary schools should stay open, regardless of COVID-19 spread
Elementary school students throughout Kansas should remain in school, even if COVID-19 spread in a community is so high that schools would otherwise close, under guidance approved Tuesday by the Kansas State Board of Education.
The proposal is only a recommendation, updating the so-called gating criteria for when schools should and should not be open for in-person instruction.
But many districts across the state are following that guidance closely and it could mean that elementary school students are back in classrooms for in-person or hybrid learning sooner rather than later.
While most school districts in the state remain open for in-person learning, an increase in COVID-19 cases in the past month have prompted many to pivot back to remote or hybrid learning, at least temporarily.
Shawnee Heights Unified School District 450 is among the districts which are currently remote but have expressed an interest in returning elementary school students to in-person learning if the state board approved the recommendations.
State education commissioner Randy Watson said the move was informed by advice from public health experts, including the Kansas Department of Health and Environment and The University of Kansas Health System, who noted that the virus did not take hold as easily among younger students.
Only 3% of cases in the state, he said, were in children nine years old or younger, and Watson cited a considerable body of research that shows that younger students did not get as ill when infected with the virus.
“The chance for the virus impacting elementary schools, both from a teacher and student standpoint, is so low that the risk of not being in school is higher than being in school,” Watson said.
In order to remain open, elementary schools must continue to follow state or local policies on things like social distancing, hand washing and mask wearing.
In older school buildings or ones where maintaining six feet of distance is impossible, the state education department now recommends that districts shift to a hybrid form of learning with cohorts of five or fewer students allowed.
The guidance would also be applicable to preschool students.
“There is a big concern about the elementary, especially early elementary and this provides another opportunity to safely educate them,” said board member Jean Clifford, R-Garden City.
Local districts would still have the flexibility to close schools as they see fit.
“Local boards and every community should wrestle with when it is appropriate to (close) given the guidance,” Watson said.
Board urges aligning spring break schedules
The board also elected to approve a motion to better align their spring break schedules with those of the state’s post-secondary institutions.
The logic behind the idea is to make things easier on students who were enrolled in dual-enrollment programs, Watson said. It is unrelated to the COVID-19 pandemic and could start as soon as next school year.
Currently, conflicting dates can make scheduling any vacation plans basically impossible if a pupil was also taking community or technical college classes.
Some members, however, expressed concern about the board was dictating how schedules are constructed locally, something board member Ben Jones, R-Sterling, said it had never done before.
“Is this an area that becomes the board’s business? I’m on the fence about it,” he said, shortly before voting against the proposal.
While local school districts call the shots on scheduling breaks, the directive would still serve merely as a guide.
"If there are local reasons for individual districts or institutions to stick with whatever they have, it accommodates that,“ said board member Jean Clifford, R-Garden City. ”But it does make sense across the state to have more of this concurrent enrollment.“