WICHITA, Kansas — Kansas’ elementary, middle and high schools can reopen for in-person instruction in August, despite Gov. Laura Kelly’s push to delay the 2020-21 school year until after Labor Day.
The Kansas State Board of Education voted 5-5 Wednesday — the tie being enough to reject Kelly’s executive order that would have delayed the start by three weeks. Her order, which affected instruction and all extracurriculars, needed the board’s approval.
"The districts have been preparing for this and they are prepared,” board member Michelle Dombrosky said. "This needs to be a local decision."
The proposed delay was one of several tactics Kelly and school districts were considering to protect educators and students returning to in-person classes. The Democratic governor wanted to give districts more time to implement reopening guidelines approved by the state school board last week, as well as get the supplies needed to keep students and staff safe and to see if the state could reverse its current spike in coronavirus cases.
“Our decisions must be informed by public health experts not politics," Kelly said in a statement after Wednesday's vote, saying it "puts our students, faculty, their families and our economy at risk."
Kelly also mandated this week through an executive order — one that didn’t need board approval — that students, staff and teachers must wear masks and use hand sanitizer at least hourly. Districts have been spending the summer months buying gallons of hand sanitizer and thousands of masks.
But Kelly’s order also requires that schools give everyone entering their buildings daily temperature checks. Demand for personal protective equipment has made it difficult to quickly obtain quality supplies, and districts must rely on new vendors still learning to make the needed supplies. In fact, getting enough thermometers for daily morning temperature checks might not be possible without a delay.
“We will really need to problem solve that to get that particular mandate in place,” Wichita Public Schools Superintendent Alicia Thompson said Tuesday at a KMUW Engage ICT panel.
‘You’ve just wasted $20,000’
Manhattan-Ogden Public Schools said it’ll be a close call getting deliveries in before the 2020-21 school year’s first bell.
It’s set to get the last of the 14,500 face masks it ordered Aug. 12 — the district’s first day of school.
The district’s bond and purchasing accountant Jamie Gregory said it hasn’t had trouble finding most of the equipment it needs, just that the timing is taking longer than usual.
The district has been relying on first-time sellers of hand sanitizers and other supplies, but not without pitfalls. Orders suddenly get canceled, products don’t always match what was promised. And there are no refunds.
"So you spend $20,000 on sanitizing wipes and they come in and they're not what you thought they're going to be, you've just wasted $20,000,” Gregory said.
Gregory said a three-week delay would have helped them better vet those orders.
Manhattan does expect its 600 gallons of hand sanitizer to last the rest of the school year. But when it comes to thermometers, Gregory said vendors were out of stock a month ago, before they were required for all Kansas schools.
“Every school district is doing the exact same thing, so you start to really weigh on your vendors,” Gregory said.
Changing the school buildings
Districts also have to make physical changes to school buildings, changes that will cost hundreds of thousands of dollars. Some are putting in plexiglass on desks to function like sneeze guards at a buffet.
But it’s more than that: Districts must choose whether to cut off the flow to water fountains, install contactless water bottle refills or just give students their own fresh-filled water bottle each day. Some schools are updating their HVAC systems to better clean the air.
Federal coronavirus relief funding is available to use for the updates, and a few districts hope local counties will share some of their federal aid pie. But the schools will likely have to pay for the supplies themselves.
Beyond safety supplies, superintendents say that a three-week delay would have been more useful for training teachers and thinking about what could happen in the fall — from needing to do some lessons online or once again completely shutting down in-person classes.
“The time that we need is really for teachers to sit down and really plan,” said Kay Lewis, the superintendent of USD 258 Humboldt in southeastern Kansas. “We need to take some time to be able to have some conversations.”
Local school boards can choose to delay their reopening, regardless of the state board deciding not to do so statewide. But without a waiver approved by the state, districts will have to make up for lost instruction time by extending the school year into the summer or cutting short holiday breaks.
Stephan Bisaha reports on education and young adult life for KMUW and the Kansas News Service. You can follow him on Twitter @stevebisaha.
The Kansas News Service is a collaboration of KCUR, Kansas Public Radio, KMUW and High Plains Public Radio focused on health, the social determinants of health and their connection to public policy. Kansas News Service stories and photos may be republished by news media at no cost with proper attribution and a link to ksnewsservice.org.