As Kansas school districts finish up the first quarters of the school year, officials need to start thinking about operations beyond the short term, education commissioner Randy Watson told the Kansas State Board of Education on Wednesday morning.


And as districts struggle to balance the needs of parents, who might rely on schools for child care, and the needs of teachers, who want to feel safe in their work environments, Watson said there is no reason those should be competing interests.


Watson gave the board an update on how Kansas schools have been working to meet the needs of their communities over the past two months. Echoing remarks he had previously made to other education groups, Watson said district officials have been conditioned to focus on their schools’ immediate needs, and current teaching environments are sustainable for the entire school year.


He said that virtually none of the state’s school districts have followed the Kansas State Department of Education’s gating criteria — which sets benchmarks for when to move between in-person, hybrid and remote learning environments — to the letter. That is alright, Watson said, because the department’s gating criteria document was only meant to be guidance, with specific details left to local districts.


However, problems are arising when districts continually adjust their gating criteria and operations over short periods of time, and Watson said local school officials are pressured to react to immediate changes in their communities’ COVID-19 situations.


"That thinking, I think, has hampered our long-term look at this for the rest of the school year," he said. "I’ve been encouraging school districts to look at this over the long term, because we need to take care of several what look to be competing needs. And they’re not."


He said that way of thinking isn’t necessarily anyone’s fault, but school success will require a shift in thinking.


Historically, teachers have viewed schools primarily as being education delivery systems, he said. In contrast, parents have come to also know schools as places where their children could receive care and supervision while they are at work.


"(Parents) look at it as both, and when that gets disrupted for a long time, the tension starts to happen when parents say, ‘I can’t do this, and my kids aren’t learning as well.’ The teachers are saying, ‘I can’t do this, and kids aren’t learning as well.’ "


Schools should look for ways to open for in-person learning, but they have to think carefully about how to do that, Watson said, and that process may be easier and quicker for some districts compared to others. Smaller districts may be better able to spread students out in classrooms, but they are also hampered by smaller pools of staff and resources.


Key to any reopening plans, though, is keeping students socially distanced, cohorting and requiring masks in schools, Watson said, as well as making intentional, more permanent operational changes.


"What’s happening, in many districts, is that they’re just getting whiplashed," he said. "They’re in constant turmoil, and you see this playing out. In board meeting to board meeting, decision to decision, lawsuit being filed to lawsuit — when you’re in that constant cycle, it makes long-term planning hard."


In making any long-term planning, Watson suggested schools take a break from constant changes in learning environments and bring teachers, parents and other communities together to talk about each group’s interests, which don’t necessarily have to compete.


Board members noted that they have seen a lot of tension and division in their communities over decisions about school learning environments. District 1 board member Janet Waugh, of Kansas City, Kan., said schools can only do so much to protect their students when their communities aren’t taking basic COVID-19 precautions.


"The schools are doing it right," she said. "I really have nothing but the greatest praise for our schools, but some of our communities, quite frankly, are not doing it right."


District 7 board member Ben Jones, of Sterling, said schools have had to deal with increasingly hostile communities, no matter what direction they take on reopening schools or keeping them closed.


"Even though the community means well and the parents mean well, it’s not coming across as, ‘Well, we still love you.’ It’s come across as, ‘How dare you?’ " he said. "I’ve dealt with it from both sides. I’ve had parents who think the virus is a figment of the imagination, that this virus doesn’t exist or that it’s made up, but I’ve dealt with parents that go, ‘How dare you make my kid go to school?’ "


The board instructed Watson to investigate ways the state department could lighten local school officials’ workloads, possibly by loosening district report requirements or waiving or changing the 1,116-hour minimum on yearly instruction time.


The board also met, via Zoom, with Kansas’ regional teachers of the year, including Tabatha Rosproy, who was both the Kansas and National Teacher of the Year recipient this year. The teachers shared updates on what they have seen in their schools as teachers and families adapt to the pandemic.


Amy Hillman, a regional teacher of the year from Olathe USD 233, borrowed an analogy from one of her students. This year has been like a rose, she said — riddled with thorny challenges but also buds of hope and opportunity.


"There’s always hope," she said. "There’s hope in the darkest moments. There’s hope in the most divisive moments. There’s even hope in the most quiet of moments."


The teachers said that some of the biggest challenges they have seen are coping with sudden changes between learning formats, the added workloads of teaching remote and in-person classes, and mental health.


Although she is on sabbatical this year as she tours the country speaking on education issues, Rosproy said, adjusting to teaching for other educators has been like fitting a tent back into its bag.


"You try punching it and rolling it, but it won’t go in like it was supposed to," she said. "That’s what we’re facing with education right now. We’re trying to make remote learning and hybrid learning too much like it was in the classroom."


The teachers said that instead of looking to poorly imitate the in-classroom learning experience, schools should look to established institutions like virtual schools that have been doing remote, online learning since before the pandemic.


"It’s going to look different when we’re two-dimensional on these computers," Hillman said. "But the fact is, man, our teachers are doing it. They’re bringing their best selves, and we have to believe that."


The Kansas Teacher of the Year team challenged the board to act on three initiatives they had identified as keys for supporting teachers:


• Back up equity initiatives. The pandemic has only magnified existing inequalities in Kansas schools, and those extend beyond lack of internet and technology access, Rosproy said.


• Value educators and school staff as much as frontline pandemic workers. Rosproy said teachers need to have spaces they feel safe to work in, and frequent COVID-19 testing in schools would help toward that goal.


• Boost funding for mental health counseling and services for students and staff. Schools will likely have to deal with the mental and emotional traumas of COVID-19 even after the pandemic is over, Rosproy said.