Community members and school board members alike shared thoughts, concerns and opinions about reopening schools at the special USD 413 Board of Education meeting Thursday evening. At times, the discussion became quite emotional.
Public comments began the meeting and two parents spoke. Jon Burchett, who has a son in high school, told the board that he was concerned about the timing of reopening schools. Particularly of concern, he said, were the six members of the district’s Leadership Team who recently tested positive for COVID-19 after a retreat in Branson, Mo. He suggested that school begin after Labor Day to give everyone more time to prepare.
“It’s not if, it’s when, we have a cluster in the schools,” Burchett said.
Next to the podium was Kim Luebbering, a first grade teacher at Chanute Elementary. With a shaky voice and tears trailing down to the top of her mask, she spoke about concept of fear.
“We are all scared right now, and that’s OK,” she said. “Fear causes anxiety and stress, and it causes us to react. … Fear is a reaction, fear has divided us.”
She told the board that she was scared to go back in the classroom, not necessarily for fear of getting sick, but because of the hate, scrutiny and judgement she sees being thrown at the district right now for its decisions.
“There are many difficult decisions to be made very soon,” Luebbering said. “I believe wholeheartedly that this district will continue to love, support, and understand the decision that you make for your family, with no judgement.”
Superintendent Kellen Adams, who attended the meeting remotely, told the board that he accepted full responsibility for going to the retreat in Branson.
“I want to publicly apologize for that decision,” he said.
As discussed at the regular school board meeting Aug. 3, as well as a community Zoom meeting Aug. 4, Adams said there is a plan in place for opening schools on Aug. 24, with choices for families as to learning options.
“We may have to pivot very quickly, depending on how the pandemic affects teachers and students,” he said.
Board member Ross Hendrickson, in debating remote online classes, reminded everyone that seven out of 10 children in the district receive free or reduced school meals.
“They might not have enough food. They might not have air conditioning,” he said. “And they might not have WiFi.”
Board member Nathan Falk (who also attended virtually) spoke several times about his concerns for the health of the students amidst the pandemic and said it is difficult to make a “Students First” decision.
“Quite frankly, we’re not prepared for it,” he said. “We’ll do a better job in our online teaching (than last spring), but we’re responsible for more than learning.”
Assistant Superintendent and Interim Chanute High School Principal Matt Koester, appearing by Zoom, said he had met with the CHS Leadership Team earlier in the day about protocols that were followed over the summer and how to handle 600-plus kids at the high school. He made a commitment to keep communication more open with teachers and staff, and said he is confident in the plans they have created to reopen.
“Our teachers know how to teach face-to-face. They know how to take care of our kids,” Koester said. “By going virtual, my fear is that we are creating a bigger problem than the three options we’ve set up.”
Those options included in-person learning or distance learning for Pre-K through fifth grade; and in-person, guided distance learning, or independent distance learning for grades six through 12. Whichever learning format is choses will have to be adhered to for the entire first quarter, and student who do not opt for in-person classes will not be allowed to participate in in-person extracurricular activities. According to a recent parent survey, around 80 percent said they will choose face-to-face instruction.
Falk ended the meeting by making a motion to delay the start of school until Sept. 8, but there was no second to the motion.
New rules for schools
As schools within USD 413 prepare to open on Aug. 24, things will look different in several ways. Some of the precautions being taken to mitigate the spread of the coronavirus and COVID-19 are:
• Orientation for students entering new buildings (kindergarten, 6th grade, and 9th grade) will be held via virtual tours of each school.
• Chanute Elementary School will split students between the gym and the cafeteria for lunch to help accommodate social distancing.
• Royster Middle School students will have three option for eating lunch – the cafeteria, the commons area or outdoors. There will be no reduction in minutes allowed for lunchtime.
• At Chanute High School, the meal procedure will change from being 100 percent self-serve to being served by school staff. Additional space for lunch will be created and students will be encouraged to eat outdoors.
• All students will have to wash their hands and sanitize before going through the lunch line. Students are allowed to take their own lunches to school.
• All students and staff will be required to wear masks, except for those with certain health conditions or disabilities, including the deaf or hard of hearing.
• Six-foot social distancing will be practiced as much as possible. Sanitizing will also take place regularly.
• Temperatures will be taken for anyone entering any district building, including parents and visitors.
The district will follow Gov. Laura Kelly’s executive order 20-59, which further outlines safety guidelines and protocols. It can be found at governor.kansas.gov/executive-order-no-20-59/