State leaders, educators discuss safety and logistics of teaching during COVID-19

Gov. Laura Kelly and other state leaders met with educators across Kansas to discuss the shortfalls and successes of teaching during COVID-19 shelter-in-place orders, and to consider support mechanisms educators will need to continue teaching through the pandemic. Above Elizabeth Peters, Rising Star Elementary Teacher, connects with her 3rd grade students. Photo credit Greg Peters.

In a roundtable conversation with Gov. Laura Kelly, Lt. Gov. Lynn Rogers and Rep. Cindy Holscher, educators across the state of Kansas outlined the shortfalls and successes of the 2019-2020 academic year and discussed support mechanisms they’ll need to continue teaching through the pandemic.

In March, Kansas was the first state in the country to shift all K-12 schools online as the COVID-19 crisis escalated. Kendra Preston, a middle school teacher in the DeSoto School District, said the decisive action allowed educators to act with certainty as they prepared for online instruction.

“Yes, it was a challenge, but it allowed districts and teachers to come together and make a plan to move forward,” Preston said. “We were able to brainstorm and collaborate and put forth what we believe was the best plan of action for our students for an extended period of time instead of going week by week.”

One of the biggest challenges raised by moving to a completely virtual education system between March and May was the school meal programs that feed low-income students. Amber Pagan, a pre-K teacher in the Shawnee Mission School District, said schools in her district were still able to deliver that nutrition to students by doing drive-up meal pick ups.

Another problem was delivering education remotely to students who might not have access to computers or internet on demand.

Leigh Ann Rogers, an elementary education teacher in Olathe, said only about half of her students regularly attended Zoom class meetings. She said she found herself calling her students on the phone just to check in on them.

Teaching through the pandemic

Several teachers expressed a similar need to make available personal protective equipment in the public schools.

As students and teachers alike return to classrooms for some kind of in-person or hybrid education in the fall, masks, gloves and hand sanitizer will need to be made widely available, especially for students whose families might not have the resources to make or buy their own, Maria Worthington, a teacher in the Blue Valley school district, said.

“I know a lot of people are worried about funding, but this is all grounded in health expertise, and how do we couple our knowledge of the health recommendations with access to protection,” Worthington said.

Main concerns discussed included delivering meals to low-income students and providing online education to students who may not have access to internet or learning devices. Teachers also discussed the logistics of providing and using personal protective equipment in schools.

If online instruction is to continue in some capacity, a path that Gov. Kelly said isn’t off the table, issues with access to technology and the internet will persist. But it’s not just students who struggled, Jonathan Eshnaur, a special education teacher in Olathe said.

“One thing that I think that we need to take into account is providing training for teachers,” Eshnaur said. “I was never prepared to teach from home from a computer.”

What the coming academic year will look like in Kansas remains uncertain, Kelly said. However, one thing is for sure — Kelly said she “pledges” to properly fund education in Kansas.

“I’ve asked the budget office to, sort of, as much as possible keep our hands off of things that contribute to the infrastructure of this very state, and I consider our public school system one of the most important parts of our infrastructure,” Kelly said. “So we will do everything that we can to protect that because we will come out of this … and when we get to that point, I don’t want our state to be in the same situation it was when I came into office.”