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Back to school — with flexibility

Chad Frey
cfrey@thekansan.com
Parents and PTO members show their concern about the return to school this fall before a meeting Monday of the Newton USD 373 Board of Education.

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With parents and PTO members using signs in the parking lot to remind them of the difficult decision ahead, Newton USD 373 Board of Education members met Monday to decide not only when — but how — to reopen schools this fall.

The original first day of school, first set by the district calendar committee two years ago, was Aug. 13. However, the COVID-19 pandemic changed that.

Upon the recommendation of superintendent Fred Van Ranken, the board approved Sept. 3 as the first day of school — a delay of about three weeks. The school year could end at the end of May, though that has not been determined.

Last spring, Gov. Laura Kelly issued an executive order shuttering school buildings — forcing Newton and all other districts in the state to move to an online learning model. The governor issued a reopening plan several weeks ago, but case spikes across the state led her to issue another executive order pushing the start of school back to after Labor Day.

That order was not confirmed by the Kansas State Board of Education, leaving districts to make a decision for themselves — and to adopt safety recommendations to slow the spread of the disease. KSDE issued more than 1,000 pages of guidance just two weeks ago.

What to adopt from that guidance is what was in front of the board of education Monday.

“You are being asked to navigate a constantly changing environment,” said Matthew Schmidt, a parent of a student, husband of a teacher and director of Health Ministries.

Two teams worked for about a week on creating the proposed plan. One team dealt with operations and the other instruction.

Operations looked at the KSDE guidance and created guidelines for on-site, hybrid and remote learning options.

“If we were going back to school today, I would recommend we go to a hybrid model,” Van Rankin said.

Parents and students will choose between two different paths: remote education (online only) or a “flexible” option. The choice will lock a student in for one semester, and the choice will need to be made this week.

In the flexible mode, the district will determine how many days students will be in school, based on COVID-19 case numbers and consultation with the Harvey County Health Department.

“What we would like to do is make the call on Wednesday for the following week as to what mode we will be in,” Van Rankin said. “... We will try and make a decision in a timely matter so that parents can plan.”

The flexible path gives the district three options: students in school two days and remote learning for two or three days; online-only education; and students in school all day, every day.

Any student learning remotely must perform a state-mandated six hours of course work — whether that be teaching/instruction from teachers or homework — each day. Families will be required to log the work.

What the board reviewed is not considered policy but rather a best practices document.

“This is a good plan, but when you get into and need to make a change, we want you to be able to make a change without us meeting,” said board member Mallory Morton.

The board will be notified of changes to best practices.

“This will be a living document,” Van Ranken said.

Board members discussed, under mask requirements, how decisions at the county level would affect the school district. The consensus was the school district would not be less restrictive than the county, and if the county allows its order to expire then mask usage would left as a district decision.

Other questions included locker usage, and the discontinuation of a shuttle between between Santa Fe and and Chisholm. The board also discussed students passing in the halls.

Staff is still working on the logistics of temperature checks, with the district considering kiosks that will perform an initial temperature check that is accurate to within a degree and takes about two seconds.

Students who do not pass the initial screening will be screened a second time by school staff.

“Generally I don’t have a problem with what the governor put out, it is right on, and within CDC guidelines. There are some little things. I don’t want kids out in the rain waiting for a temperature check,“ said board member Matt Treaster. “... The (attorney general) is reviewing this. ... I am not for getting us out of this. I just don’t think there was a lot of thought to this. We need to tweak this. We want to live within the spirit of the law. ... At this point we don’t have any wiggle room and we have to live with this best we can.“

The proposal defined each type of attendance:

Remote only K-12 (See specific bullet below for pre-K):

• Students will be off site. Rigorous instruction will be delivered from a classroom teacher, which will include lessons from every course offered in the on-site environment. All instruction delivered will have the capacity to accommodate a flexible student and family schedule while maintaining the requirements for counting student enrollment (can be asynchronous).

• Off-site daily commitments by the student will total six hours for receiving instruction, demonstrating learning and mentoring. This will include daily contact with a teacher and logs per state guidelines.

• All attendance rules apply, including excessive absences/truancy.

• Students will have access to a device and internet.

• Self-regulation skills will be taught to students, staff and families as a result of the impact of being in this environment.

• Grades 7-12 will be able to participate in activities and athletics per KSHSAA guidelines.

• Changing to another environment will be accepted at semester unless otherwise approved by the building administrator.

• Pre-K attendance rules will differ from the normal school setting. Off-site daily commitments by the student will total three hours. Those will be communicated to the families involved in their respective program.

Full-time, in-person attendance, Pre-K-12:

• Students will be on site. Rigorous instruction will be delivered by classroom teachers.

• Daily temperature checks, masks required, social distancing and hourly hand sanitizing.

• Students will have access to a device and internet.

• Self-regulation skills will be taught to students, staff and families.

• Grades 7-12 will be able to participate in activities and athletics per KSHSAA guidelines.

Hybrid-only K-12 (See specific bullet below for pre-K):

• Students will be on site two days per week and off site three days per week. Rigorous instruction will be provided by teachers that is delivered from a classroom teacher which will include lessons from every course offered in the on-site environment. All off-site, remote instruction delivered will have the capacity to accommodate a flexible student and family schedule while maintaining the requirements for counting student enrollment (can be asynchronous).

• Off-site daily commitments by the student will total six hours for receiving instruction, demonstrating learning and mentoring. This will include daily contact with a teacher and logs as per state guidelines.

• All attendance rules apply, including excessive absences/truancy.

• Students will have access to a device and internet.

• Changing from hybrid to on-site will be set by COVID-19 conditions and under the advisement and direction of the Harvey County Health Department through a process approved by the USD 373 Board of Education.

• Self-regulation skills will be taught to students and families as a result of the impact of being in this environment.

• Grades 7-12 will be able to participate in activities and athletics per KSHSAA guidelines.

• Daily temperature checks, masks required, social distancing and hourly hand sanitizing during on-site attendance as in the full-time, in-person model.

• Pre-K attendance rules will differ from the normal school setting. Off-site daily commitments by the student will total three hours. Those will be communicated to the families involved in their respective program.

In other business, the board:

• Approved student handbooks.

• Reappointed Tim Mahler to the Newton Recreation Commission.

• Discussed allowing classified staff to take a pay advance to deal with the later start date of school and the need for employees to pay health insurance premiums.

• Approved the purchase of touchless water bottle stations, funded by a grant from the Healthy Harvey Coalition, at a cost of more than $26,400.

• Approved the purchase of 20 temperature kiosks for buildings at a cost of $54,000. The district will apply for CARES Act funds to purchase.

• Approved the purchase of software licenses for Canvas learning at a cost of more than $16,800.

• Approved the purchase of 250 internet hotspots for the use of students.

The Kansan