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Kansas City Public Schools Superintendent Says Reopening Will Be ‘Lose-Lose Situation’ For Students, Teachers

Small group instruction will be more difficult next year because of social distancing rules. But districts like Kansas City Public Schools say low participation in virtual learning makes in-person instruction necessary.
Elle Moxley
KCUR 89.3
Small group instruction will be more difficult next year because of social distancing rules. But districts like Kansas City Public Schools say low participation in virtual learning makes in-person instruction necessary.

KCPS will release its plan to reopen schools on Monday. Families will have a 100% virtual option, but Superintendent Mark Bedell wants the most vulnerable students to learn in person.

Without in-person school next year, the most vulnerable students in the Kansas City Public Schools will fall even further behind their peers.

But many of their teachers are afraid to return to aging, poorly ventilated schools during a public health crisis.

“This is a lose-lose situation, in my opinion, across the board,” Superintendent Mark Bedell said at a special school board meeting Wednesday afternoon. “We did attempt to do virtual, and as a school district, we are talking about maybe making contact with 55% of our kids.”

That means 45% of KCPS students haven’t had any schooling since mid-March. State education officials estimate about a quarter of Missouri students weren’t able to log into online learning this spring because of connectivity issues, and low-income families of color are the least likely to have adequate internet access for virtual learning.

“It’s our kids that tend not to have access to technology and computers and WiFi,” said Andrea Flinders, president of the Kansas City Federation of Teachers. “I think the district has worked very hard to make sure they did get hotspots and computers to students, but these are challenges we also have face-to-face.”

KCPS parents have told the district they need school buildings to open next month because they can’t supervise online learning at home. It’s these students that need in-person school next year, says the American Academy of Pediatrics.

But Flinders says that can’t happen at the expense of safety.

“I don’t want even one child — or adult, for that matter — to have to come down with this horrible, horrible virus,” Flinders said. “When I talk to teachers across the district, they miss their kids. They want to be back in the classroom. But at the same time, it is a vulnerable population that we serve, and so many of our children don’t have great health to begin with.”

KCPS is 90% non-white, and the coronavirus is having a disproportionate effect on Black and Hispanic communities. Black Missourians make up about 12% of the population, but in the first two months of the pandemic, they made up nearly 40% of cases and deaths.

Superintendent Bedell said it might be possible to bring back some students safely, but because so many KCPS buildings are old with small, cramped classrooms, many classes would have to be at 50% capacity to maintain social distancing.

Bedell said that when the district releases its plan for the 2020-21 school year on Monday, there will be a virtual option for families who would prefer to stay home right now.

“We’re going to need parents to opt into the virtual platform because we have students who have to make contact (in-person),” Bedell told board members.

“But if the district doesn’t get enough families to opt into the virtual platform, it will force the school district to move to a hybrid schedule.”

The Missouri State Board of Education last week approved new rules that allow every-other-day attendance so that fewer students are in school each day. But many KCPS teachers and administrators are concerned that the students who didn’t log on at all in the spring won’t do so between days of in-person instruction, either.

Board member Marvia Jones, herself a KCPS parent, said more families might pick virtual learning if there were assurances that the quality would be better than it was in the spring, when the district had no other choice but to close schools.

Bedell said he worries that scenario will be repeated this fall.

“If we have to go 100% virtual based on what the data and the science is telling us, then the district will move in that direction,” he said.

Board member Manny Abarca said that remote learning might be the only safe option. He’s skeptical that students and teachers will be able to practice social distancing, even with smaller class sizes.

“I don’t know how we rationalize (reopening) with the numbers from COVID cases consistently increasing every day,” Abarca said. “I don’t know how we even pursue an option of social distancing. The reality of a kindergarten class social distancing? I don’t know how we get there.”

Jennifer Wolfsie, who is both a board member and a KCPS parent, pointed out that right before Wednesday’s meeting, Kansas Gov. Laura Kelly announced she would try to push the beginning of the school year back until after Labor Day.

“I would hope one of the things we may consider is the possibility of a delay to give us the ability to get prepared — and maybe the numbers will move in a different direction,” Wolfsie said.

Wolfsie suggested that the district consider reopening virtually, then moving to a hybrid model before finally bringing the majority of students back for in-person instruction. She said it would be more disruptive if schools reopened and had to close again after Labor Day because of another spike in cases.

Flinders, the union president, thought many KCPS teachers would be on board with that sort of gradual re-entry. KCPS is expected to communicate with teachers ahead of releasing its plan to the community on Monday.

Elle Moxley covered education for KCUR.
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