Newton USD 373 likely to delay school year

Chad Frey
Classrooms in Newton USD 373 will likely not fill on Aug. 13, the original first day of classes scheduled before COVID-19 swept across the country and forced schools to implement new student and staff safety measures. This week, the Kansas State Board of Education chose not to implement an order from Gov. Laura Kelly that would have pushed the start of the school year back to the week of Labor Day.

In a split vote of 5-5, the Kansas State Board of Education rejected an executive order from Gov. Laura Kelly that would have postponed the start of school for all schools to after Labor Day.

The move leaves start-day decisions to local school districts.

“It removed a limiting factor and it is totally up to districts,” said Newton USD 373 superintendent Fred Van Rankin.

Van Rankin will present a draft reopening plan to the Newton Board of Education on July 27 and expects the board to set a date for the opening of schools.

“We have some options, and one is later than the other,” Van Rankin said.

The later option would see schools in Newton open the week before Labor Day — about one week before the governor’s executive order would have allowed for schools to open if it had been approved by the state board.

The Newton USD 373 Board of Education will review operational guidelines Monday and set dates for a return to work for district staff in addition to setting a date for classes to resume.

“I do not want it to be based on when we want to start, but how many days do our staff need to prepare,” Van Rankin said. “... We are working on how many days do our people need to prepare.”

That means increased academic rigor for online classes should they be used or needed.

It is unlikely schools will reopen on Aug. 13 as originally scheduled — and the district shows the first day of school as “tentatively delayed” on district calendars.

The state board met Wednesday via Zoom, with each member joining the online meeting from a remote location. To affirm the governor’s order, the board needed a simple majority — six votes in favor.

The board met with Dr. Lee Norman, secretary of the Kansas Department of Health and Environment, prior to making a decision about the executive order issued by Kelly.

Norman encouraged the board to affirm the executive order.

“I feel very strongly that schools are not safe islands in an unsafe community,“ Norman said. ”... That is the same for nursing homes, meat packing plants and others.“

Board members questioned Norman about guidance from other groups that were contrary to the order and his advice and asked Norman about the effect of COVID-19 on school-age children.

“Kids are the most effective spreaders after age 10,” Norman said. “... Kids get it and spread it.”

Norman said he and other state leaders wanted to get students back in schools, but the question was how. The state board issued safety guidelines and lesson plans last week to try and help districts navigate reopening under pandemic conditions.

“The motivation is to get kids back to school, we just want it done safely,” Norman said.

Jim Porter, of Fredonia, who represents District 9 and Butler County, made a motion for the board to affirm the executive order and effectively move the start date of the school year back into September.

“We are asked to make a binary choice. Do we support or reject the order? We do not live in a binary world. There are powerful arguments on both sides,” Porter said. “... We have been told that returning to school at the appointed time puts lives of children and teachers at risk, and they are right.”

Porter told the board he believed the executive order would have been “better” and contained fewer “unintended consequences” had the board been consulted prior to its issuance. Still, he made the motion to affirm the orde and voted in favor of it.

“I believe it ironic that we will vote to send kids back to school from the comfort of our own homes,” Porter said. “... Because I believe the crisis is real, and I do not believe enough people are taking this seriously, I will vote for the order.”

Those voting against the executive order cited local control issues, with the desire to see each district make a decision about the start of school.

“This executive order does not give that flexablity to our local districts,” said Ben Jones, representative for District 7, which contains McPherson and Harvey counties. “... I believe the right thing to do is turn down the executive order and give the districts the ability to operate under their own timelines.”

Jones acknowledged the threat of districts not being able to open on dates they had announced as early as two years ago, namely due to the need for teacher training to improve online/remote learning options that may need to be in place in response to COVID-19.

“It is no doubt that many school districts in District 7 must take the time to teach local teachers to teach online,” Jones said. “... The timeline to achieve this is different for different size districts.”

He also spoke about schools in his district that ordered personal protective equipment in May and have yet to see the orders fulfilled.

“We will address needed closures on a regional basis,” Jones said. “COVID-19 is real. It is not fake. I have discussed this with survivors.”

Commenting before the vote was taken, Porter acknowledged the political skirmishes that have arisen surrounding COVID-19 actions taken by the governor — and changes by the Legislature designed to curtail her power.

“The state of Kansas would be in a better place if the Legislature would have worked with the governor to stop the spread, instead of doing everything they can to fight against her,” he said.