Districts begin to react to closure of school for 2019-20 term

Evert Nelson/Topeka Capital-Journal

By Travis Mounts
Times-Sentinel Newspapers

Late Tuesday afternoon, Kansas Gov. Laura Kelly announced that school buildings would close for the rest of the 2019-20 school year.

That has left school officials, students and parents scrambling to react to a series of events unlike anything they have seen before.

Administrators and school officials reached by Times-Sentinel Newspapers late Tuesday evening said they were just beginning to digest what the announcement means. The phrase “continuous learning” will become a part of the vocabulary, just as “social distancing” has over the past couple of weeks.

Cheney superintendent David Grover said there are two early focuses for school districts. First, he said, the Kansas Legislature is concerned about the economy and school funding. The state will waive the required number of in-class hours for students if districts promise to pay all employees through the end of the year. In most Kansas communities, the local school district is the largest or one of the largest employers.

Second, districts will need to present a “continuous plan of learning.”

“We’re in the infancy of planning,” Grover said. He was planning to meet with his building principals Tuesday night.

School officials told Times-Sentinel Newspapers that they are expecting more guidance to come from the Kansas State Department of Education this week. They expect to spend next week putting plans together for the rest of the school year. Those plans will hopefully be implemented starting the week of March 30.

What those plans look like is unknown, but there won’t be a one-size-fits-all approach. Each district will develop a plan that works best for its size and student body. Virtual education, take-home packets and even some intermittent learning in classrooms is possible.

One thing is for certain – the rest of this school year won’t look like any other.

Conway Springs superintendent Clay Murphy said district leaders across Kansas had a little bit of a heads-up today, but were instructed to stay silent until Gov. Kelly’s televised announcement. He was surprised at the directive to close buildings, which covers all elementary and secondary schools, public, private and parochial.

“I though we’d be down for another week or two after spring break,” he said. Conway Springs was set to be on spring break this week. The Cheney, Clearwater, Goddard, Haysville and Renwick districts were on break this week. Argonia schools had spring break last week, and then called off classes this week.

Murphy said middle school and high school students will adopt fairly easily to online education. That likely won’t be the same for elementary students.

“I don’t know how that works,” he said. “The big message today was teach the competencies, and don’t worry about the rest.”

One option would be to bring in a couple of grade levels at a time and spread them out among all elementary teachers. That would allow younger students to have a day or two of face-to-face learning each week.

“The state had no answers. They said this is your plan,” Murphy said. He did not mean that as a criticism. Rather, he said things have changed so rapidly that there hasn’t been time to make all the needed adjustments.

Clearwater superintendent Paul Becker was moving toward retirement at the end of this school year. The last few months will bring challenges unlike any he’s seen.

The first step is to formulate a plan for USD 264.

“That’s what we’ll be working on next week,” he said. “This is something that none of us have experienced.”

Becker said he understands parents and patrons want answers. Those answers will come, but it will take time.

“I do support the governor’s recommendation. I just think this social distancing needs to be taken seriously,” he said.

Other local school districts provided statements via email or social media.

“We have been working on contingency plans since last week, including how we can meet the ongoing learning needs and provide breakfast and lunch for our students,” Renwick leaders posted. “Plans are to launch continuous learning sometime during the week of March 30. We will provide updates on these issues as soon as the information is available.”

Haysville USD 261 officials noted they have been working on plans, and they understand Tuesday’s news will have a significant impact on families.

“We are committed to working together as a community to support one another throughout these unprecedented times, and communication will remain a top priority. Further communication and plans will be shared as soon as possible,” the district stated.

Goddard School District officials stated their intent to fulfill payroll obligations through June 30, although plans are not finalized. Like other districts, Goddard will be developing plans next week and hopefully roll them out the week of March 30.

“Our district leadership team and Board of Education members have been working on contingency plans to meet the ongoing learning needs of our students since March 11, 2020. Principals will work with our teachers to create learning opportunities designed to meet the needs of our students during a school closure. We do not anticipate delivering any type of instruction to students prior to Monday, March 30, 2020,” the district wrote in an email to parents.

Many parents and students are wondering what this means about prom, spring sports and graduation. School officials told Times-Sentinel Newspapers that those topics really haven’t been addressed yet. The consensus, however, is that there won’t be any spring sports. One official said that it would send a mixed message to keep kids out of schools but have them at practices, games and meets.

Murphy said he doesn’t see how Conway Springs can hold a prom, given the state’s ban on large groups and how soon the prom was supposed to happen.

He has not officially canceled CSHS graduation yet, although any ceremony could look very different.

Many teachers and administrators said they’ll miss the interaction with students the most.

“I feel horrible for our seniors because your senior year just ended,” Murphy said. “My good days are when I get to go visit the kids, and that’s over.”

This story reflects the most up-to-date information that as available at press time Tuesday evening. Important updates will be posted this week online at tsnews.com.