Districts adjust to a new normal

Friday, March 20, 2020

Local school districts face challenges in the coming weeks amid the COVID-19 pandemic, which resulted this week in Gov. Laura Kelly closing all school buildings across the state.

Kelly announced late Tuesday afternoon that Kansas school buildings will close for the remainder of the school year, and a task force would begin devising a plan for Continuous Learning. The 25-member task force, comprised of many of the state’s top educators in Kansas, delivered their recommendations to Kansas Commissioner of Education Dr. Randy Watson on Wednesday.

Prior to the governor’s announcement, USD 234, which observed spring break this week, was scheduled to resume classes Monday. USD 235 is slated to begin its spring break on Monday.

USD 234 Superintendent Ted Hessong and USD 235 Superintendent Bret Howard participated in webinars Wednesday on the key points of the task force’s recommendations.

Administrators and staff in both districts are in the process of using the task force’s recommendations in forming learning plans for their respective districts. The plans will likely look different for each district and could be a combination of various methods such as face-to-face learning, small group learning sessions and virtual platforms, according to the guidance document released Thursday.

“As we transition back, there are a couple things we need to do,” Hessong said Friday, adding district staff plan to send a waiver to the Kansas State Department of Education that waives the number of hours of instruction required for districts each school year.

“That will be sent to the state for approval. That also includes paying our staff through this, and the assurance that we’ll pay our people. How many hours are we short if we’re not open through the end of the school year?” Hessong said.

Howard said his district plans to also fill out the waiver, which contains information specific to each district.

“No district will meet the required hours this year,” he said.

Hessong said district administrators and staff will begin Monday “identifying what our plan looks like, putting some materials together and put it into effect. We hope to have it ready to roll out to students by March 30.”

He said that could change due to the COVID-19 situation. He said the continuous learning plan will outline how students can end the current semester and be able to earn credits or complete a grade level.

The following are the state task force’s general recommendations for all district populations regarding family partnerships and support: provide families with resources they need to meet basic needs to support their students; provide families with the resources they need to meet their students’ academic needs; provide options and variety so families can participate to the level they are capable; cross curricula work benefits students and staff as well as parents by streamlining continuous learning.

The task force’s guidance for districts as they meet the needs of their students include the following components: essential questions for administrators and teachers, a five-day plan for establishing continuous learning, a sample five-day professional learning plan, a sample parent survey, recommended time guidelines for students across grade bands, content and grade level guidelines in various areas; alternatives to technology resources; and links to free resources.

“These are strictly guidance and recommendations,” Hessong said. “It will be left up to local districts what that learning plan looks like. They’re recommending we follow KDHE guidelines about exposure.”

Hessong said beginning next week, “we hope to have the plan ready, for students to access online or what it is for that particular student if they can’t do that. We will be surveying parents to find out their access to internet and tools.”

Other questions districts will need to address include graduating seniors, credits earned by students, how decisions will affect next school year and the impact on district employees.

The district will work to make learning plans “user friendly for each kid. We want to be understanding during these times and do what’s best for students,” Hessong said.

Howard said in a letter posted Thursday on the district’s website that he and building principals have read through guidance provided by the state task force and participated in webinars to review and explain the guidance in further detail.

“What we can tell you after reading through it: We will be focusing on essential learning and essential outcomes for students — ‘Less is More’; We will be emphasizing relationships even more in this new learning environment; our decisions must support all populations of students; we will establish a consistent and agreed upon framework of expectations, communication models and practices that all stakeholders share; we will be using 1-2 platforms of learning for all students. There will be 1-2 levels for elementary and 1-2 levels for the junior high and high school; the guidance we received has recommendations on time for students to spend learning each day. We will share that in greater detail later; continuous learning will not be hours of screen time for students and parents; we will not just be making copies of worksheets and sending them home.”

Howard said in the letter he met with district administrators and staff Friday to begin discussing technology issues and concerns.

“Once we have that meeting and get some answers to a few of our technology questions, the admin team will be sending out a survey to our parents asking a variety of questions,” Howard said. “These questions will provide data that will help drive our discussions when we get together the week of March 30 – April 3 to begin forming the USD 235 Uniontown Continuous Learning Plan”

Howard said a link to the survey will also be placed on the district’s website and social media pages. He said it will be “very important that all parents take this survey.”

“Our admin team will be making decisions and we will take those to our staff and give them some options available,” he told the Tribune Friday. “They’re allowing the ability for no more than 10 in a classroom, and to keep distancing. But do you want to spend all your time and resources going to that type of plan? We’re trying to be smart setting up our plan so it won’t be affected depending on how things change moving forward.”

Howard said decisions will be made based on information known at the time on the COVID-19 situation.

“Our continuous learning plan for our students over the next several weeks will take some of you well outside your comfort zones,” Howard said in his March 19 letter. “It will be a time for growth and failure. It is how we respond to some of our failures that will ultimately determine how we feel about our endeavor in the end.”

In a March 18 letter posted on the district’s website, Hessong said building principals will share the learning plan with teachers on Tuesday, “so they can begin putting together the Continuous Learning plan for their classes, which the teachers will work on for the remainder of that week.

The week of March 23, students will not have any learning expectations. The principals will be providing more detailed information about the learning plans for families when it becomes available. Students will begin working on the learning plans March 30.”

Regarding food service, Hessong said in the letter Food Service Director Robin Button “is working hard to be able to provide a breakfast and lunch, in one delivery or pick-up, for our students starting on Monday, March 23. These will be prepared in each building for distribution.”

Hessong said Transportation Director Joe Allen “is working diligently on delivery routes for in-town and in the county,” and that information will be shared with families when they are completed.

Concerning activities, Hessong said USD 234 “will have a graduation for the current senior class whenever the pandemic subsides and the school closure is lifted by the governor. USD 234 recognizes the senior class should have their high school graduation, and we are committed to providing it for them.”

He also said each building will be sharing information with families on a plan for students to be able to retrieve personal and school items from their lockers or school staff.

Hessong said the closure of school buildings is “not something you think about, schools shutting down. You see school districts with tornadoes, like the one in Joplin, but not something like this. It’s not something I foresaw. Through my time in education, I will help us prepare as much as we can for this situation, with a focus on education.”

Hessong said he has primarily been communicating with district staff by email since the COVID-19 pandemic began, and response from staff has been positive.

“They’re saying ‘thanks for keeping us updated, ‘We’re gonna get through this,’ and positive things going through that,” he said. “We want to do what’s best for kids.”

Regarding the closing of school buildings, Howard said “I knew it was a possibility just from seeing what other countries were experiencing.” He said he has not had an opportunity to discuss forming the district’s plan with administrators and staff in a group setting.

“At this time, we’ve not gotten together as a group or staff to form our plan, so it’s difficult to say what they will look like or what challenges it brings for our staff,” he said. “We were making plans when things changed. We will give people information as we have it.”

School boards in both districts will need to meet to make decisions on the district’s plans moving forward.

“We’re following guidance from the state attorney general, to keep meetings open whether that’s visually, seeing or hearing,” Hessong told the Tribune Friday morning. “With no more than 10 (people) in a space, we’re looking to provide that virtually right now. Our thought is to have a call line in for the public wanting to listen in.”

Friday afternoon, USD 234 officials issued a notice for a special board meeting to be conducted at 9 a.m. today at the Board of Education office, 424 S. Main St. The purpose of the meeting is for the board to “discuss the learning needs of our students during the COVID-19 pandemic.

The meeting will be open virtually to the public by calling any of the following numbers: (669) 900-6833 (San Jose) (346) 248-7799 (Houston) (301) 715-8592 (U.S.) (312) 626-6799 (Chicago) (929) 205-6099 (New York) or (253) 215-8782 (U.S.)

Callers will then need to enter the meeting ID, 602 622 4923.

Administrators request no patrons physically come to the meeting.

Howard said his district was given advice from the Kansas Association of School Boards. He said the meetings would include the seven members, himself and the board clerk.

“We need to plan on making the meeting live in some format and send out a link to the public to give people the ability to log on and listen,” he said.