Wednesday evening’s meeting of the Emporia Public Schools Board of Education finally gave parents and students a bit more information to work with in making plans for the fall semester. Although some major questions were addressed — such as a set start date and a basic outline of PreK-12 curriculum — many new questions emerged in the process.

Thursday, The Emporia Gazette sat down with USD 253 Superintendent Kevin Case to present a range of community-submitted questions raised through social media, email, phone calls and in-person conversations. While many involved matters of specifics and planning — questions to which Case said he could unfortunately not offer concrete details on — the talk still provided for an inside look into the philosophy behind the district’s decision-making process.

A transcription of relevant questions and responses has been included below. District officials encourage those looking for the latest outline of distinct procedures for the fall — including current plans for student attendance, special education, student transportation, food service, extracurricular activities, building sanitation and more — to visit www.usd253.org/back-to-school-2020. Additional inquiries can be directed to the district at 620-341-2200. Case can also be reached by email at kevin.case@usd253.net or community.relations@usd253.net.

What all has gone into the process of making decisions regarding the fall semester, and why has information taken so long to provide to district students, parents and staff?

“There were some timelines presented to us over the summer, and if you go back and look at those, you can see how we’ve had to wait on major pieces of guidance and pieces of guidance we were told we needed to utilize. We got the [Kansas State Department of Education’s] Navigating Change document on July 15. Today is July 30. Just over that small time frame, I think there have been mountains moved in the last two weeks, but it in no way represents the work we’ve already done. Of the more than 1,000 pages that were included in Navigating Change 2020, a good majority of that simply involved curriculum information. We had a lot of plans in place prior to getting that document, but we had to look and see how those all aligned.

“All of these things put you on a detour route, if you will. So, I would say that a lot of work had already been done; it just may not have been public work. For me, it came down to what the benefits would be of having a lot of information out the door immediately and changing all of it — it seemed like we got about three different recommendations for mask wearing each week, for instance — or coming out with an outline that will look pretty close to what classes will actually be like in practice … Everyone wants certainty, and when we can’t provide that, it opens the door to having even more questions than would have to begin with. The challenge is in finding the balance of accurate communication about things that we know and communication about the things we don’t know.”

What does the current pathway forward include for the district, and what would be the best ways for students, parents and staff to have their voices heard?

“I think our biggest priority right now is that we need to get people enrolled. That’s going to help us moving forward as we make decisions … Once we know how many kids are going to be on-site and how many kids are going to be learning remotely, we can have better plans for a range of areas, whether that be in professional development, getting classrooms ready and all the other things that go along with that. Right now, we’ve had about 2,000 students that have enrolled, so we’ve got to validate the learning model those parents want for their child. Even for the people that have already enrolled, it’s important that we get them validated and make sure that they’re where they want to be.

“For anybody that has questions, I always try to respond to each of the emails or messages I get, or at least route them to where they need to go … We don’t have all the answers, but we do try to answer things to the best of our ability with the information we have available. So, I would definitely encourage people to reach out. I would also say that while social media is a great platform for sharing information, the information you get may not always be right. If you truly have a question, a response from someone who has read something from someone else who read something may not be your best option. It’s sometimes best just to come straight to the source.”

Will classified staff have work agreements for the 2020-21 school year? Will staff that opt out of the semester/year have positions waiting for them when they return? Will staff, or students for that matter, be required to sign health waivers before attending in-person class? Is there any information on possible sick leave in the event a staff member is out for a sustained period of time? What is the plan for students who might miss classes for a sustained period of time?

“As of right now, we’ve not made any changes in our staffing models. The challenge is in managing how that all flows together. For instance, we know that we’re going to have some form of food service this year regardless of what happens. Just look at all the hardworking people we had during last spring. I don’t really foresee any changes in our staffing models. I think the best approach for anyone who still has those questions on employment should ask and go through the proper chain of command in the building that they work at. They should be able to get answers … Just as a general rule of thumb, the district always strives to hire the best people and the most qualified for the job. Our HR department is working with the group of staff that are considered to be medically-fragile people right now. I think we put out that call for them in early June, so we’ve had all that time to start conversations.

“As far as waivers go, there was a little discussion on that … There was conversation on that early, but that has pretty much faded at this point. Right now, we don’t have anything on the board as far as that goes, but we’ll definitely let people know if we do. As far as sick days for students go, I don’t expect things to be much different than with any other student with a short or long-term illness. We’re going to work with them, and our goal is to provide them with a quality education. The challenges with staff in this regard come from needing more information. Some of the leave that is afforded through the government and the laws that were passed in that area are only good through Dec. 31, I want to say. We’re waiting on further federal guidance in order to see where that goes. We’re also having discussion on what it would look like if a teacher has to be quarantined or isolated. Those are conversations that we’re having and we actually have a subcommittee working on that.”

How many students are currently enrolled in remote-only learning options? What about students who may want to learn from home, but don’t have the proper equipment or internet access?

“Right now, based on our current enrollment, we have about 17% of students saying they want remote-only. I actually believe that number is going to be a bit higher because we still have a unknown group, so I think we’ll end up somewhere near 25% of students choosing that option for whatever reason that may be.

“Internet access is definitely a challenge, but we’re in the process of working on solutions. The district has some hotspots that may be put into use and the iPads we recently purchased for some of the younger students do have LTE capability. We also talked about the case of students who are choosing the hybrid model who may not have good internet access. There’s talks about getting them more in-person instruction. I also know there are some county initiatives right now that could be of assistance with some of the [Strengthening People and Revitalizing Kansas] money maybe being used to provide some of that needed equipment. So, we’re working on it, but it’s also a collaborative effort with the community. It could be a situation where students that have neighbors with good internet consider meeting in small groups or something along those lines. We need to explore all options.”

What is the district’s stance on masks?

“For me, masks are a done issue. I’ll just go on record and say that we’re following the governor’s orders, and that’s the plan. If you Google Kansas Executive Order 20-59, it’s all right there and I think there are a few key statements people need to be aware of …

“We’re not going to overdo things, but the order basically says that if students are all wearing masks in a classroom setting, then they don’t need to maintain that 6-feet of social distance. So, that’s something we’re working through. The executive order also says we need to have hand sanitizer and that we need to be able to check temperatures, so there are multiple aspects to it. The simple thing is that it says students need masks, so that’s what we’re going to require. There’s really not a lot of grey area there, except for the students that may be medically exempt. Those students are going to need to provide doctor’s notes to their schools, and we’ll have a process in place with our school nurses that will allow us to work with those individuals.”

What role has parent choice played in determining the final look of the fall semester?

“We’ve known all along that we’ve wanted parents to have options. Knowing that we have medically-fragile students, medically-fragile families and families that just don’t feel safe coming in made developing those options a priority. There’s a real divide on the topic though, obviously. So we believe it’s good to have those options, but we also believe the best approach for teaching kids — for the most part — is a face-to-face model. I think most parents would probably agree with that, but since we can’t do that as we’d like, it’s about the next best approaches.

“It’s about maximizing the value in the ways we provide instruction … Our staff is devoted to making sure students receive the best education possible, whatever format that might be in. We’re devoted to providing them with the best resources to be able to do that. One of the challenges right now is just the overall strain on technology resources across the country. For example, we’ve had webcams on back order now for about 6 or 8 weeks ...That’s a simple example of something we need that we might just not have access to right now.”

Is there anything you recommend that parents and guardians communicate to their students about this semester?

“Everyone needs to be a part of the solution. We all need to take symptoms seriously. One symptom isn’t necessarily a concern, but it’s when we start to see multiple symptoms that more questions need to be asked. If you’re not feeling well, you need to stay home, and that goes not just for students but for support staff and everyone else.The year obviously looks different for different families and different age groups, but I think there’s some benefit in us telling our kids that everybody has a role to play in moving this forward … We can help stop the spread. It’s important to realize that wearing a mask is one of the most important things we can do to help get us through these times.

“Big picture, I think everybody — students, parents, staff — needs to be able to respect different perspectives during this time. I always learn the most when I make an effort to really listen to what people are saying. I don’t have to agree with them, but it helps me understand where they’re coming from. We need to work with our students to make them understand that we’re a diverse community with a lot of different perspectives. Those perspectives make us who we are, so it’s less about the matter of who is 100% right and wrong, but appreciating the unique input that everyone brings to the table.”

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