Kelly’s order to delay school opening is unwarranted

Governor Laura Kelly’s order to delay school opening until after Labor Day is simply unwarranted. Neither reason nor science supports such an overreach of authority. In making the ill-advised decision to delay reopening Kelly declared, “I can’t in good conscience open schools when cases in our state are at an all-time high and continuing to rapidly rise.” Her pronouncement is particularly troubling because Governor Kelly is using only one metric – number of cases – to support her decision.

A deeper look into the most recent data from the Kansas Department of Health provides a much different picture of the impact of COVID-19 on (1) the spread of COVID-19 across the state and (2) the impact of the virus of school-age children. Consider the following:

— There have been zero deaths of school-age children (the youngest in the state is 29).

— Only 20 people under the age of 19 have been hospitalized due to the virus.

— Half the state’s counties have reported less than 20 cases (3 counties still have had 0 cases).

— Only 58 patients were in ICU statewide due to COVID-19 on July 17.

While other states are working on reopening schools, Kelly seems to be bucking the trend and focusing on how to keep them closed. Why? What is the explanation when there is no COVID-19 related data that justifies denying nearly half a million students an education?

The National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine just published a report declaring that states should be focused on reopening schools. According to the authors, “(w)eighing the health risks of reopening K-12 schools in fall 2020 against the educational risks of providing no in-person instruction, school districts should prioritize reopening schools full time, especially for grades K-5 and students with special needs.” Furthermore, “(o)pening schools will benefit families beyond providing education, including by supplying childcare, school services, meals, and other family supports.”

Students most vulnerable will suffer disproportionately from Kelly’s decree to delay school opening. There will undoubtedly be academic impacts, potentially increasing already unacceptably high achievement gaps. Low-income kids are already more than two years’ worth of learning behind their more affluent classmates. Students have been homebound since Governor Kelly was the first in the nation to order statewide school closure in mid-March. There is continuing debate as to whether what is known as “summer learning loss” is real – in my experience as a teacher, it varied from student to student – but now we’re no longer talking about just the summer. If schools actually do open after Labor Day, it will have been six months since returning students were in the classroom. It’s reasonable to think that “half-year learning loss” will be an issue, and the longer the break, the longer it will take for students to catch up from the previous year.

And do not discount the economic impact on keeping schools closed. Many families continue to struggle financially during this unprecedented recession. For many adults, the longer it takes for schools to reopen, the longer it will take for the family to regain financial footing.

Then what is the explanation for the delay? It is clearly a nod to the adults in the system. It is evident that the needs of the students are outweighed by the fears for the teachers and staff.

Of course, there are teachers and staff who are legitimately anxious for their health due to being in groups most susceptible to severe consequences of the virus. However, those concerns can be mitigated by means other than a statewide shutdown of all schools. Teachers could be given an unpaid leave of absence with the promise of a job the following school year as has been offered in other states. Also, with some parents opting to keep their children home, there are distance learning opportunities for teachers who could work from home. There are options that can keep the education of Kansas students from being an all-or-nothing proposition.

The reality is that the governor’s decision shows once again the power of the education establishment in the state. This is yet another example of how in Kansas the schools are organized and administered for the adults, not the students. If education were truly student-centered, there would be no problem reopening the schools on time.

Additionally, the decision to delay school opening less than a month before classes were scheduled to convene does not bode well for the future. What is going to be the governor’s response when a positive COVID-19 case inevitably occurs in a school? Will schools once again be shut down if a student or teacher is hospitalized or, God forbid, something worse?

The governor has dubbed the response to COVID-19 “Ad Astra: A Plan to Reopen Kansas.” But how do you reach “to the stars” when the blast-off keeps getting scrubbed due to poor decision-making by mission control?