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Students In Kansas' Largest School Districts Return To Classrooms During The Pandemic

Stephan Bisaha
Kansas News Service/File photo

Since March, K-12 students at the state’s largest districts have been sent home, brought back and then told to leave their classrooms again.

Now, many of those students will return to school buildings again this month as educators and researchers redefine what it means to hold in-person classes safely.

Topeka Public Schools reopened its doors to all students last week. Auburn-Washburn brought students back, with middle and high school students using a hybrid model. Shawnee Heights, Olathe and Derby Public Schools all welcomed students back this month, with Wichta Public Schools doing so on Wednesday.

Pushback from parents, new state guidelines and research suggesting schools are not superspreaders caused districts to bring kids back. Some teacher unions support the return to classrooms.

But community spread remains uncontrolled. The vaccine rollout has stumbled. November saw administrators pulled in to teach while many regular classroom teachers were stuck in quarantine. Teachers still worry what reopening means for their safety.

Back in session

Concerns about student health did not shut classroom doors in November — they closed because districts just didn’t have the staff.

In November, so many teachers were quarantined that districts did not have enough educators to cover all their classes. Administrators were pulled from offices and put in classrooms to help fill the need. By the end of the month, 16% of the staff at Wichita Public Schools was quarantining.

“We were pulling in anyone in a building that we could to cover these classes, and they were more monitoring kids rather than teaching,” said Kimberly Howard, president of the United Teachers of Wichita.

Wichita Public Schools had planned throughout November, despite opposition from teachers, to let middle and high school students return for in-person classes.

But with so few educators available, the board reversed course. Instead of bringing middle and high school students back, the district kept them at home and also sent elementary students home as well for online learning. Olathe Public Schools sent students home for the same reason.

But new research suggests teachers and students rarely become infected in school buildings. Contact tracers found little evidence of infections within schools — most teachers became infected in their local communities instead.

That caused the Kansas State Department of Education to suggest schools keep elementary students inside the classroom, no matter how bad the local spread of the virus gets.

On Monday night, the Wichita school board voted to let elementary students return Wednesday. Middle and high school students will come back when the new semester starts Jan. 25. Students in any grade can still learn remotely if that’s what their families prefer.

Olathe Public Schools said it reopened classrooms because public health indicators said it was safe based on the guidelines the board passed in August.

But Superintendent John Allison said the district is considering updating those guidelines because its own local data showed the same results as the national research — little indication of the virus spreading inside the schools.

“Schools have not been the superspreaders everyone was concerned about,” Allison said.

An analysis of Wichita public schools by The Wichita Eagle seems to contradict that national research. In-person elementary students were three times as likely to have a positive coronavirus test result. Wichita Public Schools employees had nearly twice as many cases per capita than the community as a whole.

Worried return

Researchers add the caveat that schools still need to keep students and staff masked and distanced to keep that spread low. As Olathe and other districts bring back middle and high school students, they’re sticking with a hybrid model, which includes in-person and remote learning.

Some Kansas teachers unions have said they support loosening guidelines based on medical experts — so long as those preventive measures still happen in the classroom. The Kansas National Education Association said in several Kansas school districts, masks still aren’t required for students and staff.

The union also wants teachers to have the option to stay home. If a teacher lives with someone who’s at risk for serious complications from contracting COVID-19, they’re often still required to show up when a school reopens.

Olathe Public Schools said that’s the same risk taken at any in-person job during the pandemic — even less because of the evidence suggesting little school spread. But that hasn’t completely assuaged the KNEA’s concerns.

“You have a circumstance there where you’re really being asked to roll the dice,” said Marcus Baltzell, the director of communications for KNEA.

Stephan Bisaha reports on education and young adult life for the Kansas News Service. You can follow him on Twitter @SteveBisaha or email him at bisaha (at) kmuw (dot) org. The Kansas News Service is a collaboration of KCUR, Kansas Public Radio, KMUW and High Plains Public Radio focused on the health and well-being of Kansans, their communities and civic life.

Kansas News Service stories and photos may be republished by news media at no cost with proper attribution and a link to ksnewsservice.org.