Schools will have more flexibility in opting out of a key mandate requiring them teach a certain number of hours per year under a proposal approved Tuesday by the Kansas State Board of Education.


Under state statute, districts must offer at least 1,116 of instruction per year for most students, a measure designed to ensure uniform levels of schooling across the state.


But the state elected in March to give districts the option of waiving the attendance requirements for schools, with many forced to cancel classes or offer online instruction in the early days of the COVID-19 pandemic.


State education commissioner Randy Watson said most schools across the state are back to offering in-person instruction, although some larger districts are still offering online or remote instruction.


"Despite the struggles, we are doing well now," he said.


Watson had previously urged caution on the matter, saying he wanted to wait and see how the pandemic affected school operations over the winter. He reiterated that opinion Tuesday but acknowledged that November and December had hit many districts hard, with teachers and staff members missing work because of the virus.


Watson proposed, and the board approved, that districts be able to schedule up to 20 hours of professional development over the winter.


Districts could later get those hours wiped off the 1,116 hour requirement — the equivalent of three school days.


"It is a chance for staff to get together and take a break, to regroup, because the last couple of weeks have been hard," Watson said.


Schools are eager for professional development, for which they would normally have an opportunity over the winter months.


But because of uncertainty surrounding COVID-19, districts were asked to set those dates for the fall, Watson said.


Many board members said the additional training would make sense given that the state’s pandemic learning plan would likely be in effect until the end of the school year.


"This provides better quality throughout the year, which is just as important as the time," said board member Ben Jones, a Republican from Sterling.


Only one member, Steve Roberts, a Republican from Overland Park, opposed the measure, saying he wanted the board to go further in providing relief from the mandate.


Watson said the board could still issue a more sweeping waiver if need be, but that didn’t stop Roberts from labeling the proposal as a "feel-good talking point."


"If it were 80 or 100 hours, I would vote for it," Roberts said. "But 20 (hours), to me, seems like putting a Band-Aid on somebody who just took shrapnel."


There is some hope that relief from the virus and its staffing crunch is coming.


Watson pointed to new guidance from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and the Kansas Department of Health and Environment that allows for shorter quarantine periods if an individual tests negative for the virus and doesn’t display symptoms.


Not all local governments have gone along with the new guidelines, and some public health experts have concerns about the move. But educators are hopeful that it would get teachers, students and staff back in the classroom sooner.


"Our biggest challenge will be staffing schools ... We are short of subs and in any given winter there are going to be staff out, that is going to be our biggest challenge," Watson said. "So shortening the quarantine period is important."