Back to school?

Chad Frey
It is likely classrooms will not be full when school resumes in August for USD 373 -- but little is known as to how much online classes and in-person classes will mix at this point. Districts across the state are waiting for Kansas Department of Education recommendations to come out this week.

The first day of the 2020-21 school year in Newton USD 373 is listed on the district website as Aug. 13, with meet-your-teacher nights in elementary schools starting Aug. 11.

But what school will look like is still anyone’s guess as school districts across the state are scrambling to come up with a plan to reopen for the first time after buildings were closed in April by executive order of Gov. Laura Kelly in an attempt to slow the spread of COVID-19.

“To be honest with you, I don’t see how we can have everyday, full in-person (classes) to begin with, with what we know now,” said superintendent Fred Van Ranken. “I think we need to get kids in school, if we can, because we have other obligation terms of custodial care when you start thinking about the families that we serve.”

About 45% of parents surveyed said they were uncomfortable in sending their children back to school. About 50% of parents responding to the survey wanted students to physically attend school. District administrators believe about 95% of parents responded to the survey put out at the end of June.

“We know that we are not selling ice cream, so we are going to make people mad no matter what we do,” Van Ranken said. "We will make a bad decision, especially in hindsight, no matter what we come up with. We just have to be patient. People just have to be patient.“

The Kansas Department of Education is finalizing guidance this week after showing a draft to superintendents last week.

The draft, which is nearly 1,100 pages long, contained guidance for operations — transportation, custodial, food service, etc. — and instructional service including example lesson plans for remote learning.

School districts across the state are expecting KDHE to release recommendations July 16. At that point, Newton USD 373 will begin working on a a draft of safety precautions and actions to take in the 2020-21 school year. The goal is for USD 373 to have two teams to work with the KSDE draft, looking at operations and another to look at instructional requirements.

“Our goals is to come to (the board of education) with a draft plan on the 22nd. That will be a draft plan,“ Van Ranken said.

The KSDE draft reviewed by superintendents last week recommends students, teachers and staff should wear masks, but that students up to fifth or sixth grade should not be required to wear them unless city or county officials pass a mandate.

A survey of USD 373 staff revealed about one-third of teachers identified themselves as “at risk” from wearing a mask — meaning they have a health condition that would preclude them from wearing a mask. The same survey showed that 75% of teachers believe the district should require masks be worn in school buildings. The No. 1 concern teachers cited with going back to school is the personal health of teachers.

The guidelines also recommend everyone should wash their hands when arriving at school and every hour afterward. It calls for space to be made available in classrooms to allow social distancing. Locker use is discouraged.

If someone in a school tests positive for the coronavirus, individual schools could close for several days, or specific class rooms could close where the infected person studies or works for thorough cleanings. In communities that have moderate to high levels of restrictions outside the school system, the draft suggests districts should consider staggered attendance.