Closure of Kansas schools sent nearly 500,000 students on a unique and unsettling journey, while state education officials consider options for transitioning to online teaching in wake of coronavirus pandemic

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TOPEKA — Caroline Zimmerman’s last day of high school felt like any other with tests, homework, contact with friends and class time to fine-tune her acting skills.

The senior at Piper High School in Kansas City, Kan., and peers across the state hadn’t contemplated an abrupt end to classes until informed of Gov. Laura Kelly’s order to close all schools for the rest of the school year as part of a campaign to diminish the spread of COVID-19. Personal dominoes affecting nearly half a million K-12 students in Kansas have been falling since Tuesday’s head-spinning declaration.

"All of us have been crying for the past 24 hours because there's just a certain security in knowing that you're going to get to see your friends every day at school," Zimmerman said. "Especially for seniors, that's now been taken away from us, so we don't get that closure and we don't get to say goodbye to our friends in high school."

All school activities have been canceled. For Zimmerman, that means no senior prom, no senior breakfast or graduation night, and no more forensics tournaments. She was working with a friend to perfect a scene from "Unbearable Lightness: A Story of Loss and Gain," by Portia de Rossi, about the actress' struggle with eating disorders, with hopes of qualifying for a spot in a national competition.

Classmates are staying in touch through texting and social media, Zimmerman said, but "it’s just not the same" as seeing them every day.

"I haven't left my house in four days now, and it sucks," she said. "We're all really bored and don't know what to do."

’Not an easy decision’

Kelly, a 15-year veteran of the Kansas Senate and spouse of a physician, initially recommended Sunday that public school districts delay resumption of classes for one week to allow administrators and teachers to develop an educational plan that didn’t compromise safety. Kansas education officials believe the state’s 286 districts complied.

As evidence of the virus’ spread emerged, the governor moved to end the 2019-2020 academic year. The challenges of safely bringing together students, teachers, staff, parents and volunteers was too great, she said.

Immediate concerns: What about the risk of academic slippage among poor, minority and disabled students? How will parents deal with child care? What about internet access at home? How to feed kids who depend on school breakfasts and lunches? Will all students just be promoted a grade or graduated? What of standardized testing?

"This was not an easy decision to make," Kelly said. "It came after close consultation with the education professionals who represent local school boards, school administrators and local teachers."

Physician Lee Norman, secretary at the Kansas Department of Health and Environment, didn’t want schools closed. He recommended school officials enforce fundamental rules of personal hygiene and keep students 6 feet apart at school in class, at lunch and on the playground.

He was barraged by demands to shutter the state’s school system from local health officials and school board presidents.

"I would have liked the schools to be open. I did not get anybody to say, ’I want you to keep schools open because I feel my kid is safer in schools,’ " Norman said. "Quite honestly, I think there’s a lot of problems with having kids at home. You’re taking kids who are incubating and might be ill and putting them with grandparents who are at highest risk because they’re at home."

The persuasive countervailing argument, he said, was that school administrators recognized students would be as inseparable as a group of pet raccoons. It would be impossible to enforce social distancing on buses and in cafeterias, hallways and classrooms, he said.

"I didn’t make the decision, but I certainly support it based on public health information of what’s safest," the KDHE secretary told a briefing Wednesday for more than 35 members of the Kansas Senate.

Task force’s blueprint

Kansas education commissioner Randy Watson said the challenge of educating children in this environment would be unparalleled. The potential of closing for the remainder of the academic year was being contemplated by state education officials before Kelly’s announcement.

"We are living in interesting times," he said.

On Thursday, Watson outlined a 25-member task force’s recommendations for guiding transfer of K-12 classes to online platforms and grappling with challenges of providing instruction to students without internet access. The task force is comprised of some of the state’s top teachers, including former Kansas teachers of the year.

"It won’t strictly be online," he said. "We have too many people who do not have access to online devices or they are disabled and don’t work in an online environment."

The state Board of Education and the state Department of Education will make recommendations to districts on how to proceed, he said, but final decisions would be left to local school boards and the district administrators. Kansas’ education model places a premium on local control, Watson said.

He expected the shutdown to have a greater impact on the youngest students and those considered at-risk because of poverty or disability.

"Educationally, it’s going to hurt. The younger the student, the more it will hurt," Watson said.

In terms of feeding children, Watson said, districts can provide two meals each day to any person ages 1 to 18. Local districts can hand out sack lunches at a central location or at a consolidated site, he said.

Districts also must decide whether to compensate teachers, the part-time paraprofessionals and other staff required to operate a school, he said.

Dale Dennis, deputy commissioner at the Department of Education, said failure to keep paychecks rolling to all district personnel would undermine school operations whenever classes resume. The hourly staff, including paraprofessionals who work with disabled students, would likely find new jobs, he said.

"If you don’t pay them, when you get ready to open back up, they won’t be there," he said. "They’d be gone."

Dennis, who has served students for more than 50 years, described the challenge ahead for public education: "This is big. And, it’s scary. Scary."

The front line

Former Auburn-Washburn schools superintendent Brenda Dietrich, who worked in education for 40 years, said providing personalized instruction would be especially difficult to deliver for students with disabilities, with English language deficits or identified as at-risk academically.

"They all require personal one-on-one attention. How do you create an effective continuous learning plan for those situations with those students?" said Dietrich, who led the Auburn-Washburn district for 14 years and now represents a Topeka district in the Kansas House.

The loss of classroom time in reading and math instruction for children in kindergarten through fourth grade will be noteworthy, she said. It is possible there will be a rise in behavioral and mental health issues of school-age children because they won’t have access to school counselors, she said.

She also said there were unanswered questions about incomplete advanced-placement courses taken by high school students and how the Kansas Board of Regents intend to deal with Kansas’ qualified admissions standards for people applying to state universities.

Dietrich said each of the state’s 286 local school districts would have an opportunity to develop strategies that best met needs of their students.

"People who are in education really care about kids and they will make this work," she said.

Pat Pettey, who taught school for 36 years and concluded her career with 4-year-old at-risk children in the Turner district in Kansas City, Kan., said the ability of educators to prepare those kids for kindergarten would suffer. Loss of the last two months of the academic year will most affect one-parent, low-income and second-language households, she said.

It will be most noticeable in those students’ ability to self-regulate when in a classroom group, she said.

"Often we think that technology, videos and being online can be a substitute, but younger children don’t need to have more screen time. They need to have more adult face time. That is a piece that sometimes parents either don’t have the time or haven’t learned themselves. It can be a hard learning process," said Pettey, who also serves in the Kansas Senate.

Split decision

Sen. Rob Olson, an Olathe Republican representing a county at the epicenter of confirmed infection in Kansas, said the governor was impatient and failed to seek reasoned advice. He said she panicked in an overheated environment. That led to the governor issuing a series of executive orders, including one closing all K-12 schools, he said.

A temporary halt, perhaps until April 1, would have been acceptable, he said.

Olson said one person directly affected — his daughter — was angry at being cheated out of her final two months of high school. And, the senator predicted, Kansas youth would rise up if Kelly ran for re-election in 2020.

"The class of 2020, they know who put this executive order into place," Olson said. "The next time the governor comes around, I’m sure she’s going to see a lot of them out walking the street."

Rep. Kristey Williams, an Augusta Republican and chairwoman of the House K-12 Budget Committee, said she would have extended the recommended suspension of classes beyond the original plan to hold students out until Monday. Schools needed more time to figure out logistics of bringing children back to classes, she said.

"I definitely would extend it," she said. "I’d go week by week."

Senate Minority Leader Anthony Hensley, a Topeka Democrat who taught in public schools for decades, said pulling the plug early on the academic year was reasonable despite the ramifications. He said students would have been placed in jeopardy.

Politicians with disdain for scientific evidence are among the first to dismiss seriousness of the pandemic, said Sen. David Haley, a Democrat from Kansas City, Kan. Public health experts have made clear the need to take aggressive action to limit illness and death from this novel form of the coronavirus, he said.

"It’s not an emergency and climate’s not changing. This is all just a farce," Haley said, mocking those who considered the danger of COVID-19 a hoax and claims of climate change an unproven theory.

Zimmerman’s lament

Zimmerman, the Piper High School senior, said she is anxious about dual enrollment college courses she was taking through Kansas City Kansas Community College because they are taught by teachers in the high school, and it isn’t clear whether they will be offered online. She counted on accumulating the credit hours before attending the University of Kansas in the fall.

She said she would like to think the state is doing what is right for everyone but can’t help but question the decision to upend people’s lives.

Right now, she said, it is difficult to see the big picture.

"I'd like to say that I have a very clear sense of what's going on, but in reality I can't say that I do," Zimmerman said. "We've never experienced something like this in our lifetime. As teenagers, all we've known is comfort and security, and to have that upended — a lot of my friends right now have been saying that they feel like this isn't even real.

"It’s just hard for us to wrap our heads around the fact that this was even going on. I do see how dangerous it can be for the older generation. I haven't met anyone who has it. I haven't seen anyone affected by it. So it's just hard to see that threat in real life for us right now. It just feels like a bad movie."