During a special meeting Tuesday evening, the Parsons USD 503 Board of Education voted on how learning would proceed for the second semester.

The new semester will begin Tuesday for teachers, and students will return to school on Wednesday.

Most elementary students have been face-to-face since return from winter break, while middle school and high school students went to remote learning to allow for the number of teachers and paraprofessionals on quarantine to decrease and potential positive cases to decline after the holidays.

Superintendent Lori Ray said as of Tuesday there were 37 elementary students in quarantine and five middle school and high school students quarantined. There are only three students, or 0.23% of the student population, and two staff with active COVID-19 cases.

Ray recommended all elementary school students return for face-to-face learning unless they are on quarantine, have a documented medical condition or have someone in their home who would be at high risk of exposure to COVID-19.

Ray said data shows the students are safe in schools across the state, and her recommendation is in line with the Kansas COVID Work for Kids, which consists of pediatricians and doctors from across the state, the Kansas State Department of Education and others who state remote learning is not what is best for students, especially those in elementary school.

“I would never make a recommendation that didn’t center around a student’s health and safety,” Ray said. “If I didn’t feel they were safe, I wouldn’t be making the recommendation.”

Ray said 37 elementary students are currently remote, though none are for medical  reasons or due to quarantine that the district is aware of.

All other schools in Labette County have already gone strictly to face-to-face at both the elementary and secondary levels unless there medical reasons for students to remain in remote learning.

“What happens if they choose not to come to school?” board member Lou Martino asked.

“They could elect to withdraw and home school the rest of the semester if that’s what they choose,” Ray said. “That isn’t what we’d like for them to do. We’d like for them to come to school.”

Putting the matter for elementary school students to vote, Martino, Roger Duroni and Jeff Quirin abstained, so the motion carried 4-3.

Ray said going to remote learning for all middle school and high school students offered the district insight into the impacts on average daily attendance, which dropped from 93% to 92% for the high school and from 93% to 87% for the middle school, based on students not participating or logging in to Zoom for classes.

She said there were instances of a large number of students not logging into specific hours during the day. In one class, 42 students didn’t log in.

Based on what has been seen through the first semester, Ray recommended all students in sixth through 12th grades return to face-to-face learning. 

However, she said, because there has been some success with some middle school and  high school students who have been remote, the district could offer two options.

The first option would be only allowing remote learning if a student is on quarantine, has a medical condition or if others in the home are at high risk. 

The second option is to offer on a limited basis for anyone who did remote learning during first semester and was successful the chance to continue learning remotely. Success would be based on students not being chronically absent or truant and grades in accordance with eligibility criteria already in place at the schools. High school students failing two or more classes the first semester would not be eligible, and middle school students failing any course would not qualify for remote learning with out a physician’s letter. Middle school and high school students wanting to be remote must have a parent fill out a remote learning application.

A couple of board members said some teachers liked it better when all students were remote. Ray said having all students on one platform is certainly more convenient for teachers, but it is not what is best for all students.

Ray said speaking to high school students at the last basketball game, she asked if they were ready to go back to school, and all said yes.

“They miss each other,” Ray said. “Our kids have been wearing the masking and do what is required to stay safe.”

Duroni said he didn’t vote in favor of the elementary school being face-to-face unless they have a physician’s letter because he felt there are people who will try to beat that deal. He imagines the same would hold true for middle school and high school. As well, he said he feels the district should wait a week or two longer following Christmas gatherings.

“I’m just concerned about the number of students who are not actively engaged,” Ray said. “I think face-to-face they learn the best and learn the most.”

Board president Mike Kastle said the majority of schools across the state have gone back to face-to-face learning.

A few board members reiterated that it would be easier for teachers if all students were remote.

Ray noted that teachers would not have as many difficulties as they faced last semester with remote high school and middle school students because fewer will be remote because they do not have a medical condition in the home, and it would only be students successful doing remote first semester, lessening the pressure on teachers.

Quirin said he doesn’t feel students should be locked in to remote or face-to-face, declining parents having a choice.

Ray said parents were pulling students in and out of school every couple of weeks making it difficult for students and teachers.

“We either need to be all face-to-face, or the limited remote, where they’ve proven they can be successful, or have a medical condition,” Ray said. 

Assistant Superintendent Linda Proehl said she had just heard from a middle school teacher stating she had 18 students failing, most because they are remote and not turning in work. She usually only has four or five failing at the most.

Board members said there may be parents who don’t want their kids in the building because of the pandemic. Ray said the problem is, learning isn’t optional and there are issues.

“I want kids to learn but this is severe stuff, and there are parents who are scared to send their kids to school,” Martino said.

“We have the safety procedures and protocols at the schools,” Ray said. “They are more likely to get COVID at places that don’t have safety protocols.”

Ray said a remote student needs to be approved by building administration, and there needs to be criteria. The counselor at the high school told Proehl they have a large list of failing students. Freshmen are failing because of poor attendance, which is normally not the case.

“We are just looking at the kids who are slipping away from us,” Proehl said.

In the end, the board voted 7-0 to approve the plan and the application.

Changes included that students can seek to be a remote learner in the second semester if they were not a remote learner first semester, but they still must meet eligibility criteria.  And, even if students are approved for remote learning, the can participate in extracurricular activities.

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