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Some Wichita teachers express concerns as they wait for guidance on starting school year

Published: Jul. 7, 2020 at 6:14 PM CDT
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WICHITA, Kan. (KWCH) - Next week, the Kansas Department of Education will release its finalized recommendations for schools, within one month of the official start to the 2020-2021 school year.

The plan called Navigating 2020, has been the key piece to the puzzle of how to reopen schools that districts across Kansas have been waiting for. The chair of the Kansas State Board of Education said the plan focuses on two main components when it comes to COVID-19: academic and operations.

“We think our kids need to be back in school. We think teachers need to be back in school, but there’s all sorts of issues now. Unfortunately (COVID-19) numbers are going up,” Kansas State Board of Education Chair Kathy Busch said.

What school will look like for students across the state is one of the biggest concerns for many parents, as well as teachers, amid the COVID-19 pandemic. Within a couple of weeks, a clearer picture of what will happen in Wichita is expected.

Eyewitness News spoke with a handful of teachers in the Wichita school district who shared concerns about the upcoming school year and COVID-19. The teachers said they want to be in the classroom with their students, but are not sure if any plans the state or districts come up with can ensure the safety of them and their students with in-person teaching.

“I just feel like we’re trying really hard to be in-person to say that we’re in-person and that’s not what’s best for anyone right now,” said one of three Wichita teachers Eyewitness News spoke with who wanted to remain anonymous.

Another said without resources and training to make spaces safe for students, “it will take more than masks and Lysol wipes.”

Further concerns include how to properly handle situations where students won’t comply with safety measures and what to do if positive cases deplete classroom sizes.

United Teachers of Wichita Union President Kimberly Howard said there are real concerns about what it’s going to take with COVID-19 and precautions.

“Are they really grasping what could happen? I mean, is it going to take a staff member that passes away from it, from getting COVID for the community to say, ‘Okay, this is really serious?” Howard said.

Teachers said they want to be back in the classroom, but even more, they want each student to be safe.

“...I’m an educator and I want my kids to be educated, but I am okay with them getting less of an education for one year during a pandemic if we’re keeping them and the community safe,” one teacher said.

How can districts address concerns and make parents, staff members, faculty, and students feel as safe as they can? That’s what the Kansas State Department of Education has spent the past few months trying to address.

The final report and recommendations, crafted by about 1,000 educators, administrators and parents are days away.

Kansas National Education Association Communications Director Marcus Baltzell said the curriculum-based part of the plan is “pretty solid right now,” and the operations side is “kind of where the real unknowns are.”

Academics deals with how learning requirements can be met if there will be a need for a hybrid or online model of learning for students. The operations piece covers items like busing, cleaning, social distancing, personal protection equipment, and other logistics that make schools work.

Busch said guidelines are designed to be individualized for each district. One thing that is evident is that the new school year will be different from prior years due to COVID-19.

“We’re going to have to do some re-teaching when we get back in August, not only our social and emotional things that we work on with our kids, but also our academics,” Busch said.

While acknowledging the importance of a plan to keep teachers, students, and staff healthy in the upcoming school year, several other Wichita teachers said it’s not just a preference that students and teachers return to the classroom, it’s a necessity. They said in-person teaching needs to happen for the social, emotional, and educational well-being of students.

Districts said they’ll start seeing individual plans for them once the department of education’s recommendations are out. Many districts are or will be looking at parent and staff feedback and surveys in crafting their own plans.

“Folks are legitimately concern. I truly understand their concerns, so this guidance we will be getting out to folks will help provide some guidelines for them and then they need to look at that guidance,” said Busch.

Last week, we saw some of the results from Wichita Public Schools (USD 259). The majority of staff fall into a medium to a high level of comfort for returning to school. Staff also report favoring in-person classes with safety measures in place. The American Academy of Pediatrics recently put out its stance that children are better off going to school, avoiding risk factors associated with the isolation that for them, are even more concerning than COVID-19.

Busch said as they get used to this new normal, there will need to be other aspects that need to be considered.

“We have a certain number of hours that we have to be in school each year. Well, last year when we went out, the legislature gave the state board of education the authority to wave those hours if districts put in a plan,” said Busch. “We don’t have that luxury this year that we can wave the hours, so as we think about moving forward, we’re going to have to be very conscious of the fact we are providing good quality instruction but we’re also getting our students adequate time to do their learning.”

Copyright 2020 KWCH. All rights reserved.

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