The Kansas House of Representatives approved the Back to School Act on Tuesday by a vote of 77-46. If it becomes law, it would make Kansas schools offer a full-time, in-person learning option to every student by March 31.
An earlier Back to School Act that was voted down was similar, but the new bill is for the rest of the school year, while the failed bill was for perpetuity. Supporters explain that this compromise gets kids back in classrooms for the remainder of this semester but acknowledges that future events might necessitate future closures brought on by emergencies.
Kansas Senate President Ty Masterson, R-Andover, backed both bills, saying remote learning has harmed many students emotionally and mentally.
Here in Great Bend, public school administrators have repeatedly stated they believe the best learning happens in the classroom but that some families have reasons for wanting their students to learn remotely. When schools were shut down this time last year, they tried to keep students engaged but couldn’t provide the rigorous program of education the children normally would have received. When school restarted last August, Great Bend USD 428 had in-person teaching and also was ready with a far more detailed remote learning plan. The district also prepared a hybrid plan in case it needed to somehow combine remote and face-to-face learning in some way. The hybrid plan, which was never implemented, would have children in their actual schools at least part of each week.
Assistant Superintendent John Popp has reported that being out of school for an extended period last year did have a negative effect on students, and the youngest students – those in grades K-2 – had the most catching up to do in the fall.
On the surface, then, the Legislature’s Back to School Act would not create a problem here, where we were fortunate enough to get back to school without a state mandate. But other area schools did shut down for a week or more when students and/or staff were hit by COVID-19 and related quarantines. USD 428 might have to do the same if there aren’t enough teachers available at any time.
Opponents of the bill say it’s not necessary because most Kansas schools have gone back to in-person learning. They are still concerned, as they were with the first version of the bill, that the Legislature wants to take control of decisions that should be made by local school boards.
The bill will now head to the Senate and both chambers of the Legislature must settle their differences on the final version.
Efforts continue to open schools across the nation. Education Secretary Miguel Cardona has stated, “While schools continue to show what’s possible as they work to open their doors and meet students’ needs, we know that we still have a lot of ground to go. We owe it to our students – especially students in underserved communities and students with disabilities – to get all our schools opened safely and to meet the social, emotional, mental health and academic needs of all students.”
It should certainly be the goal but those actually providing the teaching have the best information concerning when they will be ready. Instead of mandating open schools, the most helpful action would be to ask educators what they need to make that happen.