OPINION

Extend kindness, patience and grace as we work through difficult times

Mike Roth
Mike Roth

Last August, the Leavenworth Unified School District began the 2020-2021 school year in a hybrid schedule with less than 50% of students attending on alternating days for the first several weeks of the year. Staff was specifically designated to specialize and focus their attention on Rigorous Remote learning for the approximately 20% of school families that were not comfortable with in-person attendance for their student(s). It was extremely challenging for staff to simultaneously instruct, engage and connect with students both in their physical classroom and online. Frustrations were shared by both staff and students due to technical difficulties and inability to totally replicate the traditional classroom learning environment.  

In preparation for the 2021-2022 school year, districts were discouraged from facilitating the remote learning structure as was offered the year before. Additionally, Kansas Legislature House Bill 2134 included a specific provision that limited remote learning to a maximum of 40 hours per student, or roughly 6.5 school days, before that student would be classified as virtual at a reduced funding rate. Remote learning provisions per student are capped at 240 hours for the year. The average range of a COVID-related quarantine or close contact is anywhere from eight to 14 days. 

It is true that school boards technically have the ability to grant a “waiver” for those students that are allowed to exceed 40 hours of remote learning, but there are unknown future funding impacts tied to these situations – meaning that regardless of a local school board’s decision, it could be determined that a student is funded at a “virtual” level. Virtual student funding is approximately 60% less than traditional funding per pupil as a full-time equivalent (FTE). Funding impacts would not be known for districts definitively until spring 2022, potentially resulting in unexpected shortfalls to maintain current staffing levels and academic and extracurricular programming. 

In simpler terms, yes, school districts could allow for students to receive remote learning (approximately six days), then seek a waiver from their local board of education, which would be submitted to the State Board of Education for approval. The State Board will only consider authorization of individual remote learning waivers in excess of 40 hours, (and up to a 240-hour total), if the local district certifies that the remote learning waiver justification was due to a disaster, and if the school district is unable to adjust its academic calendar to meet the total number of hours required by the end of the school year.

Most importantly, COVID-19 is not currently recognized as a disaster. There is no guarantee that the State Board would approve an individual waiver request from a school district, as each will be considered on an individual basis. Purposeful or not, the result of HB 2134 specific to remote learning was to add layers of bureaucratic reviews and approvals, and risk of reduced funding, tied to any decision that would permit students to be out of class and receiving remote services for prolonged periods of time. This all makes it more difficult, not easier, for districts to serve the learning needs of students during prolonged absences from school. 

At a time when schools already have a significant number of challenges, the new law does not allow for remote learning to be sustained as an option in the same manner that it was last school year. It certainly does not offer school districts the amount of increased flexibility required to meet the needs of all learners, and the varying levels of comfort for families to allow their students to attend school in person.

The majority of the Kansas Legislature has consistently voiced their desire for students to have the ability to attend school in-person as much as possible, and every decision Leavenworth USD 453 has made this year is an attempt to be in compliance with that direction. School districts are well-versed in adapting to changes passed down by the state and federal level, and this year is no different. Our common ground is a belief that students have better social, emotional and academic outcomes when they are attending school on a consistent basis. Decisions on the specifics of how schools physically function and to maintain a safe and secure learning environment is up to school boards per local control.        

Another challenge for districts is maintaining adequate staffing levels despite a national teacher shortage, and higher than usual absences due to COVID impacts of illness and close-contact exclusions. Staffing is an issue in many industries currently, and schools are no different. The regional pool of approved and eligible substitute teachers has not been sufficient to ensure 100% classroom coverage on a daily basis. Days that are not 100% filled are covered internally by building scheduling adjustments and staff rotations to ensure classroom coverage and supervision at all times.

Part of a school district and board of education’s local decision making is to identify challenges and opportunities of both present-day and future conditions. Putting students first, while also managing unpredictable staffing challenges has proven to be more difficult than ever. Even with situational masking (masked unless able to maintain social distancing of three feet for 15-minute durations), there are times throughout the day when students and staff are unmasked in close enough proximity to one another that could identify them as a close contact to a lab-confirmed positive. We have also had multiple occasions where someone has reported to work or school for multiple days with a misdiagnosed COVID-related symptom, thus unknowingly exposing others.  

Making short-sighted decisions could impact a school community for years to come. I am extremely proud of the work of the Leavenworth Board of Education over an extremely challenging and unprecedented 18-month period. They have remained engaged on a weekly basis, answered critiques and concerns from a wide range of perspectives and viewpoints, and worked collaboratively to make informed decisions they believe to be in the best interest of the district as a whole. I sincerely appreciate all those who have respectfully disagreed with board votes and/or district decisions, and taken the time to advocate on behalf of themselves and others. This results in healthy discourse and a more engaged and connected school district. Disagreement without being disagreeable is a key characteristic of a strong community, and the type of place where people will choose to live, work, play and raise their families. I’m hopeful and optimistic that those that are in positions to serve and positively impact the lives of young people can remain focused on the shared mission at hand. 

Keeping students and staff safe in school has never been more challenging, at a time when outside noise, second-guessing, name-calling and misinformation has never been more rampant. Myself, our administrative team and our certified and classified staff don’t always agree on how best to prepare our students for success, but we are collectively dedicated to that very mission. We understand and respect that our Pioneer families will have different views, thoughts and perspectives as to how they believe that schools should be run. These are difficult times to be a school employee, and difficult times to be a parent and guardian. I hope that we can extend kindness, patience and grace to one another, and that we can work through our differences as a community willing to work together to keep our students and staff safe and in school.    

For us to have a successful school year as possible, we need more community members to be willing to actively serve in the role of substitute teacher for multi-day placements (completing the application process is not enough, we also need individuals willing to take the call when we have a classroom vacancy); we need more voices willing to participate in a healthy exchange of thoughts and ideas with an intent to unify, rather than purposefully agitate, blame and divide; and most importantly, we need everyone to stay home from work or school when feeling ill. The number of potential quarantines and exclusions increase exponentially based on the number of days that a sick person is on-site and attending school or work in-person.  

The first pioneers faced physical hardships and challenges that would feel insurmountable today. Their shared and resilient efforts led to the city of Leavenworth being founded in 1854 as the first city in Kansas. But, with an unbreakable sense of community, they persevered as a unified front. It’s always a great day to be a Pioneer, and if Leavenworth can stand strong together during these polarizing and divisive times, I sincerely believe that tomorrow will be an even better day to be a Pioneer. 

Mike Roth is the superintendent of Leavenworth USD 453.