TOPEKA, Kansas — Gov. Laura Kelly on Tuesday ordered all of the state’s schools closed for the remainder of the academic year, taking her most dramatic action yet to stem the spread of COVID-19 in Kansas.
The governor’s decision came while all the state’s schools were shut down either for spring break or to slow the spread of the new coronavirus — some under orders from county health departments. In particular, the largest school systems in Kansas had either moved to online instruction or stretched out those spring breaks.
“The reality of this pandemic is that it cannot be controlled statewide if school buildings remain open,” Kelly said in an afternoon news conference in the Statehouse.
She said state officials and local school districts had begun working on ways to make remote learning work, even as she acknowledged online classes will not match what happens in schoolrooms. Her order also applies to private schools. Kelly said the new school year should start as normal in August. Just under half a million Kansas students will be affected by the decision.
Health departments in Douglas, Franklin and Shawnee Counties closed schools for two weeks. Riley County, home to Kansas State University and the biggest military base in Kansas, ordered Manhattan schools closed until the end of March.
Some educators worried how rural parts of the state could continue teaching their K-12 students when internet service was unavailable in so many homes. For instance, Washington County Schools estimates about 30% of its students have no internet at home.
That digital divide, between the haves and have-nots of the Kansas school districts, underscored an inequity in the state. That could become more pronounced when institutions shut down so that Kansans can try to avoid infection in the fast-moving pandemic.
Educators are also concerned about how to teach their youngest students remotely, especially when it comes to online lessons.
“How do you deliver a preschool curriculum online?” said Denise O’Dea, superintendent for Washington County Schools. “I don’t even know if it’s feasible.”
State education officials say their remote learning efforts won’t be as strong as what they can do in a classroom. But they hope it will prevent students’ educations from sliding further back without any instruction to fill the gap.
“It will provide us a bridge during these difficult times to bring us back when there is a sense of normal,” said Education Commissioner Randy Watson.
Kelly’s task force will release recommendations for school districts Wednesday evening, but school districts can decide what, if any, remote learning they’ll provide.
What that means for high school seniors looking to graduate remains under discussion. State officials asked school boards to look at their local graduation requirements to see what can be done to make sure students finish the year with a legitimate high school diploma.
The prospect of closing schools also raised worries about replacing lunches provided to the neediest students and whether poorer areas of the state could adapt as well as wealthier areas such as Johnson County. School districts across that suburban Kansas City county, the most populous in the state, announced a shutdown on Monday.
Several school districts have been working with state officials to get federal waivers that would let them deliver meals during the school year, much the way they do in the summer.
Kelly said the state has begun working with districts to keep those nutrition programs going in some form.
She also said that salaried and hourly employees at public schools will continue to be paid. Kansas schools employ more than 72,000 workers.
Meanwhile, state universities started making the call this week to move all their classes online.
Wichita State University’s campus remains open while Kansas State University closed its dorms. The University of Kansas announced that it plans to finish the semester online, rather than have students return to campus for classes after spring break. It also said students would have to seek special permission to remain in on-campus housing.
More than 30 states have already shut down their schools as the United States ramps up its response to the COVID-19 pandemic. The White House warned governors that states with community transmission should shutter schools.
Stephan Bisaha reports on education and young adult life for KMUW and the Kansas News Service. You can follow him on Twitter @stevebisaha. Daniel Caudill covers the Statehouse. He's on Twitter @byDanielCaudill.
The Kansas News Service is a collaboration of KCUR, Kansas Public Radio, KMUW and High Plains Public Radio focused on health, the social determinants of health and their connection to public policy. Kansas News Service stories and photos may be republished by news media at no cost with proper attribution and a link to ksnewsservice.org.