Great Bend USD 428 Superintendent Khris Thexton told school board members he doesn’t want students and staff to stop wearing masks in district buildings yet.
The low number of COVID-19 cases is encouraging, he said. However, “one thing that makes me pause is that we have statewide assessments that are going on. And then as we get towards the end of the year, we’re looking at graduation for our seniors.” With no crystal ball, “I would prefer we continue using masks until we get through state assessments.”
Although Barton County has dropped a county-wide mask mandate, the Kansas Department of Health and Environment and the Kansas State Department of Education still recommend them, he noted.
Director of Teaching and Learning Tricia Reiser added that most of the district’s remote learning students have returned to on-site learning, but some parents might be more reluctant to allow their students back in the classrooms if masks aren’t in use.
School board members asked educators who were at Monday's meeting to describe how things are going. Great Bend High School Principal Tim Friess, Great Bend Middle School Principal David Reiser, Eisenhower Elementary Principal JoAnn Blevins, and GBMS Counselor Sheryl Neeland agreed that students have been good about following the rules.
“It’s just part of what we do now,” Blevins said.
Principal Reiser agreed but added, “everybody’s tired of it.”
Thexton said a survey was sent to about 725 faculty and staff and 425 of them responded. “Fifty-eight percent would like to get rid of masks,” he said. About 30% want to keep the masks and the rest had varied responses that included doing whatever it takes to stay in school.
Keeping students in school is the most important thing, Thexton said. That means avoiding spreading the virus that causes COVID-19. “I’d rather be overly cautious than not.”
Still, board members spoke of “mask fatigue.”
“I’d like to see masks off at some point by the end of the year,” board member Jacquie Disque said. But first, “I want to get through state assessments and prom.”
Thexton said the state tests are going on now and should be done by the end of the month. Prom is this weekend.
The board members agreed to discuss the topic again at the next meeting, set for April 29.
Family Engagement Coordinators
In other business, the board agreed to use federal COVID-19 relief money to hire seven Family Engagement Coordinators, one at each school. The district can use ESSR funds, which stands for Elementary and Secondary School Emergency Relief. Congress set aside approximately $13.2 billion of its CARES Act funds to address the impact that COVID-19 has had, and continues to have, on schools across the nation.
Tricia Reiser said this is different from the Family Support Workers that are already in the elementary schools. She added GBMS and GBHS don’t have Family Support Workers, but they would get Family Engagement Coordinators.
“This plan would shore up learning for students and supports for families and educators,” she said. Among other things, the coordinators could take over implementing summer learning and supplemental after-school programs that used to be offered through Kansas Reading Roadmap before the state stopped funding that program.
The goals would include parent engagement and strengthening community resilience.
“Addressing learning loss is a big (goal),” Reiser said. The impact of COVID-19 on emotional wellbeing is not yet known. “It’s very important that we really pay attention to that family relationship (with the educators) as we move forward. We’re living in unprecedented times and we cannot really anticipate everything that our kids are going through. If we can support our families — wonderful.”
Walking School Bus
The board accepted a $1,000 grant from the Kansas Department of Health and Environment via the Barton County Health Department for the promotion and support of the Park Elementary Walking School Bus Program. Thexton said Park is the only school that currently offers the program, which coordinates a safe, supervised walk to school.
The board approved the resignations of Sarah Cherry, a contracted substitute teacher, and Destiny Denney, a special education teacher at Great Bend Middle School.
The board also approved several teacher appointments for next year:
• Sarah Allison, Early Childhood Special Education (ESCE) program coordinator at Barton County Special Services
• Maggie Kriegh, special education teacher at Jefferson Elementary
• Kimberlyn Sinclair, preschool teacher of the Little Panthers Preschool (which will open this fall)
• Jaimee Beugelsdijk, sixth-grade teacher at Lincoln Elementary