COVID-19 is forcing Kansas schools to close. A JoCo lawmaker’s long-shot bill would allow more remote learning

More than a dozen Kansas districts have closed individual schools or shut down completely during the recent surge in COVID-19 infections. A law passed by the Kansas Legislature last year restricts remote learning to no more than 40 hours per year for an individual student. Photo credit Suzanne Perez/Kansas News Service.

By Suzanne Perez

As a growing number of Kansas schools cancel classes because of COVID-19 outbreaks or staff shortages, one Johnson County lawmaker wants to let districts avoid shutdowns by using online learning.

Rep. Jarrod Ousley, a Democrat from Merriam, introduced a bill this week that would eliminate a 40-hour-per-year limit on remote learning.

“Having the option for school districts to go remote versus close the building seems like a viable option,” Ousley said. “A good tool in the toolbox that we took away from them last year.”

He said he thinks his bill would have bipartisan support on the floor of the Legislature, but it’s unlikely to get past a heavily conservative K-12 budget committee.

“I personally don’t think it will ever see the light of day,” he said.

What happened last year

Last spring, Kansas lawmakers passed a new law restricting remote learning to no more than 40 hours for an individual student over course of an entire academic year. The measure was a message to districts: Kids should be in school, in person.

The law allows districts to offer full-time online options, such as Wichita’s Education Imagine Academy. But students enrolled in traditional in-person schools cannot go fully remote.

If a student goes over the 40-hour limit, the district could lose up to two-thirds of state funding for that student.

Ousley, who is the husband of Shawnee Mission school board president Heather Ousley, says last year’s Legislature didn’t anticipate a lingering pandemic that would prompt widespread teacher shortages and school closures. He says districts should be allowed to use technology to keep kids learning.

“We’ve got school districts closing buildings. We’ve got school districts on the verge of closing buildings,” he said. School districts “know the infection rates in their buildings better than the Legislature is going to know.”

Rep. Kristey Williams, a Republican from Augusta who chairs the K-12 budget committee, said during a recent meeting that schools have more flexibility than they did before the pandemic.

“They have the option of 40 hours of remote schooling that they can use, which is approximately six days, that they wouldn’t have had pre-pandemic,” Williams said. “If a school district does need to close because of (a) teacher shortage, then they have the option of doing that temporarily and then making those … hours up.”

Impact on schools

Wichita, the state’s largest district, recorded record-high absences this month, with more than 900 employees in quarantine. The district closed a handful of elementary schools for several days.

More than a dozen other Kansas districts, including De Soto and Olathe, have closed individual schools or shut down completely during the recent surge in COVID-19 infections. Others include Manhattan-Ogden, El Dorado, Bonner Springs, Fort Scott and Pittsburg.

Both Blue Valley and Shawnee Mission have warned closures are possible due to the strain on staff but have so far not had to cancel school.

Last fall, the Wellington district south of Wichita abruptly closed all schools and sent students home without a remote-learning option. The district later added 10 minutes to the end of each school day to comply with state guidelines for the minimum number of instructional hours.

Wichita school board member Kathy Bond campaigned against wholesale school closures last fall. But amid this month’s surge in COVID cases and quarantines, she said she’d support lifting the 40-hour limit.

“There needs to be an option online for these kids to be able to go ahead and even pick up homework or do something that can keep them caught up with their academics,” Bond said.

Suzanne Perez reports on education for KMUW in Wichita and the Kansas News Service. You can follow her on Twitter @SuzPerezICT.

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