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Wichita Students Start A Very Different Kind Of School Year

Nadya Faulx
KMUW/File photo

For the first time since March, at least some Wichita Public Schools students returned to the classroom Tuesday.

But concerns about spreading the coronavirus means school will look a lot different this year. KMUW education reporter Stephan Bisaha spoke with Morning Edition host Jonathan Huber about some of the biggest changes.

How school will look different this year

All middle school and high school students will start the school year learning remotely. But don’t expect virtual classes to be treated like they were in the spring.

When Gov. Laura Kelly’s mandate closed physical classes in March, Wichita Public Schools adopted a philosophy that any learning is better than no learning: Students weren’t graded. Attendance was ignored. Only seniors needing to boost their GPA to graduate were allowed to take tests.

This year, in order to replicate the rigor of in-person learning as much as possible, both in-person and virtual students will be graded on their work.

Learning options

Students will be returning to school in one of three ways:

  • Education Imagine Academy is Wichita’s long-running virtual school. Students who decide to enroll get an experience tailored for online learning. They can study at their own pace, and video chats are kept at a minimum. Students are expected to commit for at least a semester, though, and have to ask for special permission to transfer back to their original school if they want to return to in-person learning.
  • MySchool Remote lets students learn virtually while staying enrolled in their current school. The program is meant to mimic the traditional classroom as much as possible, with many of the lessons being taught by teachers over video calls.
  • In-person lessons: Students return to their home school with some health measures in place. Masks are mandated, but the other details — such as how far desks will be spaced apart — change from building to building.

Currently, only elementary students are returning to in-person classes; middle and high-school students are learning virtually for the first nine weeks of the semester. A hybrid model, where students spend some days in-person and others learning virtually, will not be an option.
Sports and activities

Wichita Public Schools originally voted to cancel fall sports and other activities like drama and debate for the first nine weeks of the school year. But complaints from parents led to the board of education reversing its decision.

After consulting her COVID-19 advisory committee, district Superintendent Alicia Thompson created a plan that would let sports continue without spectators (though many games will likely be streamed live). Moderate and higher risk activities, like dance and football, will require students to take only virtual classes during the season and two-weeks after.

What will change

Wichita Public Schools is currently in its second highest coronavirus restriction level out of four. In nine weeks the board will reevaluate whether to change that. If coronavirus numbers in Sedgwick County fall, the board could decide to let middle and high school students take in-person classes again.

But if the pandemic grows worse, the district could cancel winter sports and move all students to virtual classes only. Of course, that nine weeks of remote learning isn’t set in stone: The board could vote to change its restrictions earlier if the county’s coronavirus situation shifts dramatically for better or worse.

Jonathan Huber is KMUW's operations manager and host/producer of NPR’s Morning Edition. His newscasts have received honors from the Kansas Association of Broadcasters, Edward R. Murrow regional awards, and the Public Radio News Directors.