Kansas school districts, state education commissioner Randy Watson said, are stuck between two impossible situations right now.
When the Kansas Department of Education released its guidance on reopening schools over the summer, they gave districts three recommended options: in-person learning, hybrid learning and completely remote learning.
In districts that opted to open for in-person learning, primarily smaller districts in the more rural parts of the state, teachers and families have generally been happier. But those same districts have seen higher rates of COVID-19 transmission, cases and quarantines as the virus runs rampant through their buildings.
In districts that opted for remote or hybrid learning, cases have been low. But parents and students have become increasingly frustrated with those learning models, and learning has not been as effective.
Neither of the learning models are sustainable, Watson told members of the Kansas Association of School Boards on Friday, and in looking to the rest of the school year, schools will need to rethink the way they deliver education.
"I’ve been in about 45 school districts since the start of school, and I will tell you, what we’re doing is not sustainable," Watson said. "Teachers can’t do it."
Since the start of the pandemic, local school leaders have set short-term goals — to make it through the Labor Day holiday, to make it through Halloween, to make it through the first semester. Districts are now challenged with coming up with a longer-term solution as political pressure mounts both to open schools for in-person learning and to send students home to keep COVID-19 transmission low, Watson said.
One of the best solutions at the moment is to return students for five-day-a-week learning, while keeping class sizes to fewer than 15 students while requiring masks and 6 feet of social distancing, the commissioner said. But that’s not always feasible for districts, especially larger ones, for three primary reasons:
Lack of facilities
Some schools already suffered from large class sizes before the pandemic, and even when using other building spaces like gyms and libraries, schools are still short on space to spread their students out, Watson said.
One solution to that is for districts to partner with other organizations in the community, like churches or businesses that are closed anyway because of the pandemic. He said rent on those unused business spaces is probably low at the moment, as well.
"We’re going to have to get our communities together and figure out where we can spread kids out," he said.
Lack of staff
Similarly, schools are finding staffing issues, especially as some teachers choose not to risk teaching and catching the coronavirus. Watson suggested schools look internally for backup and use non-teaching school staff — like librarians, paraeducators, substitute teachers, central office staff and reading specialists — to fill the ranks.
"Everyone is going to have to be a teacher again," he said. "Almost everyone. We’re going to have to do that in order to have enough people to pull this off."
As districts face a greater need for substitute teachers, as well, Watson said his staff will ask the Kansas Board of Education later this month to waive or reduce requirements to receive the most basic license, an emergency substitute teaching license, which only requires 60 college credit hours and a background check.
Lack of financial resources
Although Kansas schools are receiving approximately $153.9 million in coronavirus relief funding, Watson said districts are still facing several kinds of expenses.
According to a KASB report, Kansas schools cumulatively held $233 million in contingency funds, meant to cover unexpected expenses or losses of revenue, at the end of the 2019-20 school year. Watson said those funds were designed for times like this.
"Yes, for over 100 school districts, we’re going to have to use our contingency funds," he said. "If you’ve got more than 15% of your contingency funds, this is a rainy day time."
Beyond those three issues, Watson said schools will also have to deal with plans for busing, food service, special education and "specials" classes — like art, music and physical education.
At the moment, districts are also facing COVID-19 spread from high-risk activities, like football. Watson said that high political pressure forced districts to allow football to continue.
"As long as we play high-risk activities, which politically we all have to do, we’re going to have spread, and quarantines are still very likely," he said. "You’re seeing that going on as football teams are scrambling trying to figure out who they’re going to play this weekend because of spread."
School leaders from across the state are working on plans for keeping schools safe in the winter, when buildings will lose the option to spread students apart outdoors when cold temperatures force them inside.
Watson recommended school leaders stop prioritizing cleaning commonly touched items and instead focus more on air filtration systems. He said schools should look to use or purchase high-grade, medical-quality air filters.
As the school year progresses and health experts hone in on more reliable, faster COVID-19 testing, Watson warned that testing by itself would not necessarily reduce the need for schools to quarantine, pointing to recent positive cases for President Donald Trump and professional football teams.
What will work, though, and has been working is spreading students out and wearing masks. The biggest barrier, then, is convincing the public to do so, as well, and Watson said he’s seen that some Kansans are still fighting or failing to follow mandatory mask requirements.
"I do think that the long-term solution — even with the vaccine, even with better antivirals, even with better testing — is that over the long term, we have to find ways to move kids, outside of 10 minutes here or there, six feet apart, and everyone has to wear a mask," he said.