Following hours of debate and motions made and rescinded, the Parsons USD 503 Board of Education Tuesday night voted to forgo starting school on Aug. 26 with two weeks of remote learning for all students.
Instead, the board voted 4-3 to begin school Sept. 8 with parents being allowed to choose one of three options to suit their student’s needs: In-person learning, remote learning or Virtual Viking School through Greenbush. The board voted that activities will start Aug. 17 as planned and that remote learners will be allowed to participate in Kansas State High School Activities Association activities for this school year, in accordance with the change allowed by KSHSAA.
The Labette County Health Department has reported that the positive rate on COVID-19 tests is down to 5.6% in the county and has given the go ahead to county schools to offer face-to-face instruction, while abiding by recommendations for social distancing, sanitizing and mask wearing. Health Department Administrator Lisa Stivers and Dr. Sonya Culver, the health department’s medical director, said they both are confident in-person learning could proceed and both have children who will be attending in person. The positive test rate is nearer the 5% that physicians recommended to the board a couple of weeks ago, when the positive rate for infection was at 7.2%. It is below the federally recommended 10% rate for K-12 schools and universities to proceed to in-person schooling.
The school board voted to give students in pre-school through fifth grade two learning options and students in sixth through 12th grade three learning options.
Pre-K through fifth grade can choose in-person learning at school or remote learning at home with USD 503 teachers. Sixth through 12th graders have those two options and Virtual Viking School, in which students are enrolled in USD 503 but take courses through Greenbush. This option is for middle school and high school students who are good at self-guided learning and want to work at their own pace to complete course work ahead of schedule. Students participating in Virtual Viking School are not eligible to participate in the free and reduced food service program.
Before broaching the topic of how the board believed students should start school amid health and safety concerns during the coronavirus pandemic, students, parents, teachers and administrators approached the board to support starting school on Aug. 26 in-person, not through remote learning at home unless that is a parent’s choice.
Parent Kami Ryan advocated for herself and other parents. She and her husband have demanding jobs that require travel and she told the board they cannot quit their jobs to teach their four children at home for two weeks and providing the state-mandated six hours a day of documented learning per child. Not everyone has the luxury or ability to teach their children at home, she said. In addition, she read a letter from her 16-year-old son, a straight “A” student, speaking of his struggles at the end of last school year with focusing and depression in trying to learn from home. Ryan questioned why students who travel to sports tournaments cannot attend school.
Parent Lisa Farris said her daughter, a Parsons High School junior, was requesting changing schools if she could not start school in-person because she struggled with online classwork.
“We are Vikings through and through, and it breaks my heart to consider that,” Farris said, but added, “I will do whatever I need to do for her.”
Farris is not alone in those thoughts. Parents speaking openly online in recent weeks have discussed concerns with remote learning and stated they would enroll their students elsewhere if USD 503 did not start school in-person as are neighboring districts.
Lincoln preschool, kindergarten and first grade teachers spoke to the board about the burdens placed on working parents through remote learning. Based on their experiences at the end of last school year, they also shared how remote learning was not beneficial for the youngest students in the district who learn through interactive play and hands-on experiences. They spoke of too few Lincoln students getting online when they were using online apps (like Zoom) to see one another, and the chaos that would ensue, as all students excitedly wanted to show teachers their house and rooms, their pets, their toys. On occasion they would even take their device with them to the bathroom when they needed to go.
“It is extremely difficult for Lincoln students,” kindergarten teacher Brenda Winder said.
Elementary school administrators said nearly a quarter of the students were not participating in online learning at the end of last school year. Garfield Principal Misty Russell said about five students per classroom received no instruction and she never received a response from some families after the state’s decision to close school buildings in March. Some parents spoke of struggles getting their students motivated to do the school work from home. Russell said there were some instances where parents who were required to continue working during the shutdown had to request the help of family out-of-town or out-of-state to watch their children, as they couldn’t afford day care at $100 a week or more. Russell said in other instances, older siblings were left at home to care for the younger ones. Given the six hours a day remote learning required by the state this year, this scenario is not feasible, she said.
Guthridge Principal Kurt Friess said he could not say 100% of his teachers were on board with face-to-face learning. However, while a few think distance learning is the safest way to go, he said as educators they must also ask what is the best method for students and face-to-face is proven to be best.
Russell said some concerns surfaced because teachers and parents do not yet realize everything schools are putting in place to protect students and teachers.
“I feel total peace about bringing these kids back,” Russell said.
New Parsons Middle School Principal Rejeanne Alomenu said if administrators did not think students and staff could be safe, they would not recommend returning to the buildings.
The USD 503 Board of Education is requiring all administrators, teachers, staff, visitors and students of all ages to wear masks throughout the day when inside school buildings once school begins Sept. 8, unless they are exempted for documented health reasons.
There has been some confusion because of a Parsons City Commission vote Monday exempting primary and secondary students from the mask-wearing law as long as they are following school policy.
Superintendent Lori Ray said that city commission vote does not negate the policies discussed by the school board the last couple of months mandating that everyone, including all students, wear masks except where approved based on Kansas State High School Activities Association rules for sports and related activities and state and federal health recommendations for children under age 2.
All persons entering buildings will be required to sanitize their hands, have their temperature taken and wear a mask unless exempted. For health and safety reasons, visitors to buildings will be limited.
Coaches spoke to the school board requesting that activities start Aug. 17, and Anthony Houk reported students in summer activities have not complained about safety measures and have been cooperative, resulting in no incidents of infection. Coaches expressed their belief school should start in-person, supporting the sports program.
High school volleyball student-athlete Jamya Kendrick appeared before the board on behalf of her team to request sports be approved to start on time and that school move forward in-person rather than remotely. By having school, she said, students will be more dedicated to getting their work done to qualify for sports. As well, she said, the board should consider that for middle school and high school students whose parents have to work, there is too much of a chance for them to do things they shouldn’t and end up in trouble if remote learning was pushed.
“I think every student just wants to go to school and they understand they need to wear masks. The older students are more mature and understand what it takes,” she said.
Parsons High School Principal Eric Swanson requested that the board at least allow small groups of Lincoln students, special needs students and those who are behind from last year, to start school Aug. 26, but some board members raised concerns about discrimination in that process in not allowing all students to start at the same time.
Superintendent Ray reminded the board that 46.8% of 591 parents responding to a district survey said they wanted students to be able to return to school face-to-face. Around 21% were undecided at that time and 23.6% said they wanted remote learning, though that was before seeing all the state’s requirements. Ray said some parents may change their mind about remote learning given the requirements the state mandates.
In addition to the survey, Ray informed the board that only 63% of students are enrolled for next year despite the districts’ efforts since last spring to encourage early enrollment. Given other districts are starting in-person the week of Aug. 17 or the week of Aug. 26, she voiced concerns parents will choose to take their students elsewhere.
Despite hearing from Ray, parents, principals, students and teachers about burdens on students and parents, some board members wrestled with starting school in-person.
“I wouldn’t want one of the kids to get sick and die on my watch,” board member Lou Martino said.
He and board member Roger Duroni voiced concerns, pushing for remote learning and their belief they should wait to reopen buildings to students until after Sept. 8. As the board moved to that consideration, the question arose as to why they do not wait until Sept. 8 to start school. And the motion was made for students to start any of the three options at that time rather than it being remote only for all students to start.
Following much debate, the board agreed to start all options Sept. 8.
Should positive test rates escalate between now and Sept. 8, the board will consult with the health department for additional recommendations.
IN OTHER BUSINESS, the board;
— Approved the 2020-2021 budget for publication.
— Approved hiring three additional full-time substitutes.
— Approved ratifying the negotiated agreement with Parsons National Education Association.
— Approved the SPARK Task Force coronavirus relief funds memorandum of understanding.
— Discussed a first read through of the social media policy.
— Discussed a first read through of the 2020-2021 negotiated agreement handbook and classified staff handbook.