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Kansas City Parents Grapple With Sending Kids Back To School As Pandemic Worsens

North Kansas City Schools
North Kansas City students have a socially distanced picnic on the first day of school. The district has two year-round elementary schools, Crestview and Winnwood, that went back July 13.

In some districts, families who can opt into online schooling are being urged to do so to make social distancing possible in cramped, crowded classrooms.

An increasing number of coronavirus cases in the metro has Kansas City parents worried it isn’t safe to send their kids back to school.

But as other families struggle to choose between in-person and online instruction, Kurt Austin and his wife have already sent their two school-aged children back. They’re in kindergarten and third grade at Crestview Elementary, a year round school in North Kansas City that reopened July 13.

Austin said putting his daughters on the bus that morning was “so surreal.” He and his wife weren’t sure it would actually happen because the start date had already been pushed back once.

“It’s like, all right, this is actually happening. You’re getting on the bus. You’re going to school,” Austin said. “I asked my third grader what was the biggest difference, you know, between today at school and school as you knew it prior to spring break, and she goes, ‘Everything was different.’”

For one, North Kansas City students have to wear masks now. Austin’s wife bought a stack of them from Target, 15 or 20, all in different patterns and colors so the girls can choose whatever they’re in the mood for each morning.

Then there’s the niggling fear that this is only temporary, and pretty soon their daughters’ school will have to close again. After all, life isn’t back to normal yet. The Austins have a 3-year-old whose preschool hasn’t reopened. They can’t take their kids to visit their great-grandma at her nursing home, or to see their aunt, whose fiancé is a doctor. They can’t go to the library for arts and crafts or storytime. They have season tickets to Worlds of Fun they haven’t used this summer because big crowds, even outside, don’t seem safe right now.

School, at least, is a controlled environment.

Lee's Summit R-7 School District
A student in Lee's Summit wears a mask during summer school. Many districts are requiring face coverings for students and staff.

“You trust that the schools are working with medical professionals and basing their decisions on the available data,” Austin said, adding that he knew North Kansas City had worked with the Clay County Health Department to reopen Crestview and Winnwood, the district’s other year-round school. “But there’s just so much unknown when it comes to the virus and kids and transmission, and what’s out there sometimes contradicts itself.”

A doctor’s perspective

Everyone is asking Christi Bartlett if she’s sending her kids back. Not only is she the parent of three young children, two of whom attend Shawnee Mission schools, but she’s a palliative care and hospice physician.

Ten of her patients with COVID-19 have died.

“On one side, there is the death and devastation, and on the other side are people who are still going about their normal lives,” Bartlett said. “Maybe you don’t know anyone who’s had COVID, anyone who’s died of COVID, but it’s such a fine line dividing those two sides.”

She pointed to cases in Texas and North Carolina where large family parties sickened dozens of people.

“They think, ‘Oh my gosh, but it was just a birthday party, you know, we're family, we all felt fine,’” Bartlett said. “I think it's hard to convince people that they should take it seriously when things feel perfectly normal to them otherwise.”

Plenty of Bartlett’s friends and neighbors are taking the pandemic seriously. But then she’ll drive by a shopping center and see a full parking lot at T.J. Maxx.

Bartlett said she gets it. She could really use a shopping spree, too, but her family is only going to the grocery store and grandma’s house. She and her husband, Luke, a stay-at-home dad, are planning to keep their kids at home this fall. She wrote a blog post about her decision that many Johnson County parents are sharing.

“It really comes down to whether the school community as a whole is being responsible,” Bartlett said. “If you have 75% of kids and their families who are taking this seriously, distancing, wearing their masks, but you’ve got 25% who aren’t? That really makes the efforts of those trying to be responsible almost for naught.”

Being flexible

Of course, being able to stay at home with your kids is a privilege not all parents have. The way Justin Ferguson sees it is that if some kids are able to attend virtually next year, classrooms will be safer for students who absolutely need to be in school. Ferguson has a son and a daughter in the Independence School District, where his wife teaches English language learners.

“Virtual schooling isn’t accessible for a lot of people,” Ferguson said. “(My wife and her colleagues) are creating online lessons for their students, but there’s a big communication gap that prevents their students and their parents from even knowing that those options exist.”

Ferguson said that his kids miss their friends, but they can have socially distanced hangouts with them while going to school online.

“Our kids are old enough that they can deal with online education and be fairly responsible and do things on their own without having to dedicate a lot of time to guiding them through things,” he said. If Ferguson’s kids have questions, they can come to him because he works from home and has a somewhat flexible schedule.

In some districts, families who can opt into online schooling are being urged to do so to make social distancing possible in cramped, crowded classrooms. Students in the Kansas City Public Schools will return after Labor Day and attend virtually until cases in the metro start to decline, but the district has already said that it’ll only be possible to maintain social distancing in classrooms if at least 40% of families enroll online next year.

Elle Moxley
KCUR 89.3
The Kansas City Public Schools will start the school year virtually because cases are spiking in the metro. Many districts are still figuring out what to do about classrooms with flexible seating, where not every student has their own desk.

Meanwhile, Raymore-Peculiar has had to modify its re-entry plan because so many parents want their kids to go back to school in-person. Middle and high school students will only be able to attend two days a week next year, and the district is warning families now that it might have to prioritize in-person instruction for its youngest learners next year.

“The district could continue providing elementary students with a full 5-day in-person experience by spreading out using space at the elementary and middle schools,” district officials wrote in an email Saturday morning. “In this scenario, the district would transition grades 6-12 to a full virtual environment with opportunities for small group intervention instruction at the high school for our middle and high school students.”

Pediatricians generally agree that younger students are less likely to transmit the virus than adults, so they should be in school if possible, with precautions like social distancing and mask wearing in place.

However, there’s increasing evidence that older students can and will spread COVID-19, making it less clear whether they should return to school in-person this fall.

Pandemic pods

At a meeting last week, Kansas City Public Schools board member Mark Wasserstrom asked why the district was setting up its own online learning platform instead of encouraging students to enroll in the state’s Missouri Course Access and Virtual School Program.

It’s simple: districts need students to enroll in their online programs to receive state funding, dollars that will help purchase PPE and keep schools afloat if and when education budgets are slashed due to the pandemic.

Cheryl Jones has enrolled her three children in online learning through the Park Hill School District, and she plans to open her home to a few other families next year. The parents will hire a tutor to help the kids when they get stuck, and the students will be able to socialize with each other.

“I had started reading about this happening on the coast, and the idea just made sense to me, as both my husband and I are at home full time,” Jones said. “I recognized that within our circle of friends, there were some single parents that needed to be at work, and they had really struggled during the fourth quarter of shutdown trying to keep their kids on task.”

A lot has been written already about the inequality of these so-called “pandemic pods,” and Jones is acutely aware that not all families have the means to hire a tutor next year. Like Ferguson, the dad in Independence, Jones thinks it’s her responsibility to keep her kids at home next year because her family has the means to do so.

“There are social inequities that I don’t think are going to be fixed during this pandemic,” Jones said. “I will do what I can to help out kids who don’t have the same things my kids do, but I also have very limited reach. One of the things I can do is getting my kids out of a classroom so that they won’t expose those kids that have to be there.”

Two of Jones’ children were already taking some of their classes online when schools shut down in March, so she’s been helping families new to virtual learning adjust.

“I understand the frustration and the steep learning curve that is involved when you have no experience with online learning,” Jones said.

Not for everyone

Parents are also concerned about the quality of online instruction. Park Hill Superintendent Jeanette Cowherd said at a school board meeting on Thursday that the district was fielding a lot of questions about online Advanced Placement classes.

“What we’re seeing come in, most of our most popular AP classes are probably going to make (their numbers),” Cowherd said. “Is College Algebra going to make? Probably so, it’s one of the most popular classes that we have.”

Cowherd said districts need a headcount of online learners to assign teachers to virtual sections of classes. But she conceded that probably hadn’t been explained very well to Park Hill parents. They’d been told there was no guarantee their kids would get any of the online classes they’d signed up for, and parents in most districts have been told that once their students are enrolled, they won’t be able to switch to in-person.

North Kansas City Schools
North Kansas City's year-round schools are already in session. The district has given families in its other schools until the end of July to pick the option that's right for them.

The deadline for Park Hill parents to choose was Friday. It was also Friday in Fort Osage. Kelly Rogge and her husband picked in-school instruction for their 12-year-old daughter, Lauren.

Lauren is a good student, Rogge said, but online learning just wasn’t for her.

“Lauren enjoys school, but she did not enjoy that. By the end of the semester, she was done,” Rogge said. “Sure, she did the work, but her mental and social health suffered. She started to withdraw and frankly, I think, started to get depressed.”

Rogge said when soccer started back up, Lauren’s mood changed immediately, affirming her and her husband’s decision to send their daughter back this fall. They would have enrolled her in summer school, but Fort Osage wasn’t offering transportation.

“We are both back at work. We have the flexibility this summer to work a couple days at home, but my guess is that will change in the fall,” said Rogge, who has a 40-minute commute into Kansas City, Kansas, most mornings.

Rogge said not only does Lauren understand the purpose of masks, but she’s willing to wear one if it means she’ll get to go back to school.

“She needs to interact with people,” Rogge said. “She needs to be in class with her teachers. She needs routine.”

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