Johnson County districts, health officials will face choice about prolonged school closures in coming days

Kansas Education Commissioner Randy Watson on Sunday "strongly recommended" that all K-12 schools in the state close this week — but didn't mandate it. File photo.

Note: The Shawnee Mission Post is making all of its local coverage of the coronavirus pandemic accessible to non-subscribers. (If you value having a local news source covering the situation in our community, we hope you’ll consider subscribing here).

On Sunday, Kansas Education Commissioner Randy Watson and Gov. Laura Kelly strongly recommended that all K-12 schools in the state close for the coming week, a move they said will to give administrators time to plan for how to address the coronavirus pandemic, though they didn’t make closures mandatory.

The recommendation had no direct bearing on Johnson County’s six public school districts, which were already scheduled to be out for spring break this week. But school and health officials here will face difficult choices in the coming days as efforts to limit transmission of COVID-19 intensify.

Kansas law requires that K-12 students spend a certain number of minutes in class each year — that’s why districts have to tack days on to the end of the school year if they lose too much class time to inclement weather. As officials across the country take steps to limit the gathering of crowds in hopes of stemming transmission, the prospect of prolonged school closures is becoming increasingly likely. In New York City, which has seen a concentration of new cases, for example, officials announced Sunday that public schools will be closed through at least April 20.

But school, state and health officials here have a number of competing interests to balance. As Kelly mentioned in her Sunday evening press conference, many students receive needed meals through public schools’ breakfast and lunch programs. What’s more, many families would have a hard time finding childcare for young kids kept home. State officials worry that closing the schools could place additional hardship on already underserved students.

Still, the superintendents of Johnson County’s public districts — Shawnee Mission, USD 232, Blue Valley, Olathe Spring Hill and Gardner Edgerton — issued a joint statement Sunday indicating that schools may well be closed after spring break.

“As we are all well aware, proactive measures to combat COVID-19 are important to community health and safety,” read the statement. “All Johnson County school districts will continue to work closely with Johnson County government, including the Johnson County Department of Health and Environment, to take proactive steps to address student, staff and community safety. Families should continue to proactively make plans for the very real possibility of a school closure beyond Spring Break.”

The question will be whether and how districts that choose to close for a period of days of weeks will need to make up for the lost class time.

Without a waiver from the Kansas State Department of Education, districts that choose to close their schools — or who receive an order from their local health department to close their schools, as was the case in Douglas, Franklin, Riley and Shawnee Counties — would still be required to make up instructional minutes by June 30, 2020.

In an post published on its website last week, KSDE notes that it would consider proposals to count e-learning programs toward state-mandated class time, but not every district will have the ability to execute e-learning programs effectively. Many districts don’t have tools or processes set up for online instruction, and a significant number of families don’t have access to the internet at their homes, causing further equity concerns.