Shawnee Mission pushes back first day of school to train teachers on new systems amid COVID-19 uncertainty

“We’re going to continue to prioritize student, staff and community health and safety. We’ll have plans ready to hold school in person with virtual options available," Superintendent Mike Fulton told the board Monday. File photo.

With the prospect of a school year deeply impacted by the continuing COVID-19 pandemic on the horizon, the Shawnee Mission Board of Education took a series of steps on Monday to prepare for a variety of instructional scenarios.

Superintendent Mike Fulton and Associate Superintendent of Leadership and Learning Michelle Hubbard noted that district staff have been working on action plans to prepare for three distinct scenarios ahead of the expected release of guidance from the Kansas State Department of Education on July 10. Fulton said that he hoped the district would be able to release specifics about Shawnee Mission’s plans for the fall semester at a special board meeting on July 20.

But even without a specific plan in place at this point, administrators said, there are steps the district needs to take now to attempt to ensure a smooth start to an out-of-the-ordinary new year.

First day of school pushed back to August 17

The most significant of those steps is a revision to the 2020-21 calendar, bumping back the first day of classes for most students by three days. The initial calendar for the 2020-21 school year, which was approved by the board of education in summer 2019, had the first day of school for students in grades 1-6, 7 and 9 set for Wednesday, August 12. The rest of the grades would have started Thursday, August 13.

Instead, the administration will turn August 12, 13 and 14 into professional learning days in hopes of providing staff the time necessary for training on processes related to COVID-19 prevention in the buildings and remote learning techniques.

“Regardless of the variation of the plan, schools will need time to plan prior to kids showing up,” Hubbard said.

The first student contact day of the year will now be August 17 for grades 1-6, 7 and 9; and August 18 for grades 8 and 10-11.

The tweaks to the calendar do not require moving the final date of the school year, Hubbard said. The calendar had enough padding in it to adhere to state required student contact hours without adding days to the end of the spring semester. One of the professional learning days at the beginning of the year is made possible by turning Sept. 18, which had been previously scheduled as a professional learning day, into a student contact day.

New learning management system, switch to cloud-based remote access

The administration also announced the adoption of a new learning management system and a switch away from the virtual private network that had caused so many headaches for parents, teachers and students this past spring.

Fulton said that feedback from parents and teachers about connectivity issues on district-issued devices as staff tried to administer instruction remotely prompted the changes.

“Knowing that there were frustrations this past spring with the virtual private network, also known as VPN, which we used to ensure student safety online, we are prepared to make some changes,” Fulton said.

The board approved the purchase of a new content filtering system called Lightspeed for $99,840 that will replace some of the functions of the VPN.

The learning management system, called Canvas, will “provide a more streamlined and connected learning experience” for students and teachers whether instruction is in-person or remote.

Fulton said the changes were intended to ensure as much normalcy as possible in uncertain times.

“We will also have clear expectations in the next school year, and that includes grades, attendance and regularly connecting teachers and students,” he said.