Kansas Gov. Laura Kelly made the right decision when she closed school buildings across the state because of the coronavirus threat.

The decision will help protect students from catching and transmitting COVID-19. It will also protect teachers, administrative staff, parents, the folks in the lunchroom, custodial staff and others. It could slow the progression of the illness in Kansas.

At the same time, no one should downplay the real hardships Kelly’s decision will impose. Graduation ceremonies may be postponed. School plays, projects and sports will be canceled. Parents who work outside the home will have to scramble to find child care for their young kids.

Those are the immediate impacts. In the longer term, the governor and the state must understand what the closing means for educating our children, and carefully consider how teaching can continue.

Educating students in these circumstances will be enormously difficult.

A special task force of the Kansas Department of Education has issued guidelines for continuing to teach the state’s 500,000 students for the rest of the school year. The guidelines include reliance on teaching courses by remote computer connection.

Many districts will adopt that approach, yet relying on digital learning will widen the gap between wealthier districts and more challenged urban districts, as well as those in rural areas.

Here’s the reality: Not all elementary school students in Kansas have access to a computer in their homes. Many rely on smartphones for internet connectivity, hardly the ideal tool for learning.

Libraries, community centers and computer teaching labs may be closed or open for limited hours. “Internet access will be an issue for many families in Kansas,” the task force said. “Staff and students may lack the resources to connect remotely.”

“It’s a huge issue,” said Tom Esselman, head of Connecting for Good, an important charity that works to provide refurbished computers and network access to low-income families in the metro area.

In families with one computer and more than one student, parceling out screen time may be difficult. And some teachers in elementary grades may not have sufficient training or equipment to provide quality digital instruction.

The task force has recommended that each district survey its students to understand digital capabilities and remote learning access. “All districts, buildings and grade levels need to include non-technology based options,” it said Thursday.

That guidance is critical.

Internet service is spotty in many parts of Kansas. In the 200-student Ashland school district, in southwestern Kansas, officials and the local internet provider are scrambling to provide digital access for all students.

“I know there are still single homes in the county that do not have the same capacity or broadband as we do in the city, but our online capacity is in good standing,” said Ashland Superintendent Jamie Wetig.

Teachers in Ashland, and others, will undoubtedly work as hard as possible to reach students this school year. But the digital challenges in rural areas and in some urban districts will remain.

“The coming weeks will lay bare the already cruel reality of the digital divide,” Federal Communications Commissioner Geoffrey Starks wrote Thursday. “Tens of millions of Americans cannot access or cannot afford the home broadband connections they need.”

That sober reality will soon become clear in Kansas, as students and educators lean on the internet to teach and learn. When this crisis has passed, ensuring that every household has access to affordable digital service should be among our highest priorities.

Kansas City Star

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