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Kansas Commissioner of Education Dr. Randy Watson speaks to more than 900 media members and educators from across the state during a video conference call Thursday, March 19.

When Paola USD 368 Superintendent Matt Meek learned on the morning of Tuesday, March 17, that he was going to receive an update from Topeka, he was prepared to hear that his district’s spring break was going to be extended by a week or two due to the coronavirus (COVID-19) pandemic.

Instead, he got an early notice on the message Gov. Laura Kelly would announce later that afternoon during a press conference: all K-12 school buildings in Kansas will be closed for the rest of the 2019-20 school year due to the fast-spreading virus.

“I expected a two-week shutdown,” Meek said. “This is how quickly things change.”

The governor’s directive also caught Osawatomie USD 367 Superintendent Justin Burchett off guard.

“I think the general mood right now is shock,” Burchett said Wednesday, March 18. “I met with my administrators, department supervisors, and ONEA representatives this morning and we began the planning process for transitioning to a different kind of education. During those conversations we stressed that our teaching staff will emerge from this experience with a new skill set that they can integrate into their in-person classes in the fall.”

The decision to suspend in-person instruction for the remainder of the school year also includes private and parochial schools, the governor said.

“The reality of this pandemic is that it cannot be controlled statewide if school buildings return to normal operation,” Kelly said.

Louisburg USD 416 Superintendent Brian Biermann said he understands the reasons behind the governor’s order.

“Before education takes place, our number one priority is the safety and well being of our students and staff,” Biermann said. “This is another way that the government believes they can slow the spread of COVID-19. Even though we will be in uncharted territory, as far as the teaching and learning environment for the next few months, our teachers and staff will rise to the challenge and provide a sound alternative learning experience for each child.”

Kelly added that a task force was assembled to work out the details of a “continuous learning plan,” which will give parents, teachers and students a clearer picture of what to expect moving forward.

Kansas Commissioner of Education Dr. Randy Watson said the continuous learning plan will include a combination of small group instruction, online instruction and some other ways of looking at education.

It will be up to each individual school district to map out their own plan, but Watson said the task force’s recommendations can be used as a starting point.

The task force’s findings were released Wednesday, March 18, in the form of a 76-page document, and the recommendations were discussed the next morning during a video conference call with state education officials and more than 900 media members and educators from across Kansas.

Watson began by clarifying that although Kansas school buildings will be closed for the rest of the school year, teachers and administrators will still be working to provide learning strategies.

He said schools will be mostly empty throughout the week so they could be deep cleaned, but beginning the week of Monday, March 23, he is asking school district leaders to start building their continuous learning strategies, some of which could be implemented as early as Monday, March 30.

Watson also pointed out some key points in the executive order, one of which would allow for small groups of students to meet with a teacher if the total group consisted of 10 members or less and social distancing was practiced.

“We did not shut schools down in Kansas,” Watson said. “We are limiting activity in schools in Kansas.”

Meek said small group lessons is one of the possibilities being considered for Paola USD 368. Virtual lessons are also an option, but Meek said he realizes not every student or faculty member has reliable home internet. Another option is sending home packets with textbooks and assignments.

Local families without internet may be able to get help from Suddenlink, which is offering Altice Advantage Internet free for 60 days, where available, to any household in its service area that has a student from K-12 and/or college.

Biermann said he’s not a big fan of the small group idea because he’s hesitant to allow any student or staff member into the buildings.

While some districts are setting up times to allow small groups of students back into middle and high schools to retrieve items from lockers, Biermann said he believes it would be safer to keep the items safe where they are and retrieve them once the restrictions have been lifted.

“It’s very, very scary times,” he said.

Food service is another topic being tackled by all districts.

Osawatomie USD 367 kicked off its food plan Monday, March 23. Free meals will be offered to all children ages 1 to 18, and they do not have to be USD 367 students, according to a release posted on the school district’s Facebook page.

The meals can be picked up at the Osawatomie High School main entrance and Osawatomie Middle School cafeteria entrance between 11 a.m. and 12:30 p.m., according to the release.

The district is encouraging all children to utilize the program because the meals are free, and every meal served helps the district pay its food service employees, according to the release.

During this time of off-site instruction, Louisburg USD 416 is going to continue to supply meals to any child, ages 1 to 18, every weekday, beginning Tuesday, March 24.

“We will provide each child a sack for lunch and breakfast the following day,” Biermann said in a post on the Louisburg USD 416 website. “The sack lunch may be picked up on the west side of Broadmoor Elementary School from 11 a.m. until noon. Children will need to be physically present in order for the district to provide a sack lunch. We would encourage folks to stay in their cars and loop around BES to the west side. We will have staff outside to provide the lunches to each family.”

Chairs of the state task force that worked on the recommendations were: Winfield teacher Tabatha Rosproy, who is the 2020 Kansas Teacher of the Year; Buhler teacher Cindy Couchman, who was the 2009 Kansas Teacher of the Year; and Dyane Smokorowski, an innovation and technology leader for Andover, who was the 2013 Kansas Teacher of the Year. All of the teachers spoke during the conference call.

Some of the themes throughout the lengthy document include: taking a “less is more” approach and focusing on essential learning, encouraging the use of material and resources that are already in use, establishing a consistent framework of expectations, and having patience and extending grace as everyone gets used to the new normal.

The document poses questions for local administrators and teachers to answer, and it provides sample learning plan schedules.

Meek said he’s hopeful most of his grade level teams can meet separately Monday, March 23, to start planning out their strategies, although he knows a few of his staff members may be in home quarantine based on recent travels.

In the midst of all the planning, Meek said his thoughts go out to senior high school students who are missing out on memories.

“I feel horrible for the seniors, especially,” Meek said. “It’s just a bad deal.”

Still, Meek said one positive of the situation is that his administrative team and district teachers are being forced to get creative to develop the home-based learning plans, and he’s certain some of those strategies will be a benefit to the district long after this crisis is over.

“I do believe that we’re going to have some good ideas come out of this,” he said.

Editor and Publisher Brian McCauley can be reached at (913) 294-2311 or brian.mccauley@miconews.com.

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