Wichita 2020: An Unconventional Back to School
WICHITA, KS JULY 27th, 2020
BY CLAUDIA AMARO
There is no doubt that thanks to COVID-19 we are living unprecedented moments in many parts of the world. Our lives have changed in many ways and it has affected us in different ways. The most palpable chaos was when our families' routines of taking their children to school collapsed. Parents have had to adjust to new routines at home since schools closed a few weeks before the end of the school year.
Many parents did not plan to care for their children at home and had to make changes. Students with their dreams of crossing the stage to receive their diplomas and celebrate their graduations were crashed and some of them even had the responsibility of helping their younger siblings to finish their school year with technology that many parents did not understand.
That is how the summer was spent. Families took a break to create new routines and now they must prepare for their children's new school year. The scenario is no different from when schools decided to close in March. COVID-19 infections continue to increase and there is still no vaccine or efficient medicines against COVID-19. We're living in uncertainty. And different feelings floods parents who live different experiences and situations.
COVID-19 has turned most systems, that govern us as a society, upside down. From politics to health and education. The authorities and leaders must make decisions that affect us all and opinions are divided, including in our Latino community. A great example is the debate on back to school timing even with the situation that we are living with the pandemic.
Daen Quintana, a concerned mother, disagrees with the idea of her children returning to school in August as if nothing is happening. "the numbers of infected people are extremely high, and I feel like it's not the right time for them to go back. The same thing that happened to us during quarantine is going to happen. My biggest fear is that there is a large cluster of the virus in schools, we know that it is difficult to have control with the little ones, I am afraid that this situation will worsen and endanger us all." For Daen the education of her children is very important, she says that parents should also take responsibility in crisis like the one we are living, she trusts that children will be able to recover academically once the danger minimizes, she would even agree to send her daughter to summer classes and to spend more time with her to support her with reading and other activities that she needs to advance academically. "While there's life, there's time, if there was a massive contagion the virus would be out-of-control and there would be more loss" she told us. Daen also cares about her daughter's social skills, "Yes, it's important for kids to socialize, but there's also another opportunity for us, parents, to take the time and take them out to open areas , let's play with them and dedicate time to them, we can't leave all the responsibility to the schools."
We posted several surveys on Planet Venus, most parents believe it is too early for students to return to school, especially because of the number of people infected with COVID-19, and many feel that there is no consistency with what the authorities are deciding. However, there are also parents who want their children to return to school, because they are concerned about the social-emotional well-being of their children.
For Graciela Landeros who regularly runs around the clock all day to help her children through their education, their extracurricular activities and her own desire to learn English and to get a career to provide their children with a better future, not just by word, but with deeds, the congruence between what she does and what she wants to teach her children is very important. "The Pandemic was stealing my children's lives by living in fear during their spring break, that made me react and decide that I wasn't going to let fear take hold of us and I started talking to my children and looking for ways to take care of us not only physically but also mentally and emotionally." Graciela has been very proactive in educating her children, getting involved in schools, boards, conferences with teachers, etc. "For me there are several reasons why it is important that my children go back to school, one of them is because I know they are missing a lot of academic content, and they need that structure, especially children who are academically behind. We also know that all children have to interact with other children." Graciela thinks that we should not be alarmed by statistics, and that we should give the same importance to the mental health of our children as to their physical health and adds: "For many years we have seen various viruses, pandemics and diseases pass by, as they arrive, but not many of us talk about mental health, our children are developing anxiety, instability and fears of being with other people , and it is because they need to interact with others their age." Graciela would not want the role of parents in education to change however she thinks many things will have to change from now on "I think that we, as parents, will have to be more flexible and patient with our children, because even when they return to school their progress will not be the same with everything new they have to learn, if other things in the world are moving slower we cannot expect for the return to classes to be the same as before."
And that is precisely what has the parents’ lives upside down. What will the return to school be like? The recent executive order of the Governor of Kansas, Laura Kelly, #20-59 generated even more anxiety among parents, as this order makes it mandatory for visitors and students to use full-day masks in all public or private schools from kindergarten through grade 12 in high school.
Exceptions to this executive order are:
1. While eating;
2. Activities that cannot be safely conducted with a mask or other face covering;
3. Children who are not students and are 5 years of age or under;
4. Persons with a medical condition, mental health condition, or disability that prevents wearing a face covering;
5. Persons who are deaf or hard of hearing or communicating with a person who is deaf or hard of hearing, where the ability to see the mouth is essential for communication;
6. Persons for whom wearing a face covering would create a risk to the person related to their work.
This executive order also mandates 6 feet social distancing, except for in-person instruction in classrooms when masks or other face coverings are worn.
The order will also require hand sanitizer in all classrooms, and that all students and faculty must sanitize their hands no less than once every hour.
Finally, all individuals entering must have their temperatures checked before entering the building.
She also filed a second executive order #20-58 ordering schools to delay their return to school until September 8 to allow time to prepare everything more calmly for the safety of teachers and students. This order could not be signed without the approval of the board of directors of the Kansas Department of Education, who on Wednesday, July 22, voted against this order and left the decision to each school district. On Thursday, July 23, the Wichita public schools board, decided that they would respect the governor's proposal and agreed to postpone the return to school until September 8 or 9.
How would Back to School look like?
Online enrollment is already open in the Wichita School District, but uncertainty has many of our families paralyzed without knowing what to do when they are feeling threatened by coronavirus. This week we spoke with Wichita Public Schools Superintendent, Dr. Alicia Thompson.
We started this interview talking about diversity, and she shared with us that being in the position where she is now has opened her eyes and helped her to redefine the term of diversity, because now she values it even more , not only on the racial side but also on gender diversity, thoughts and opinions, she thinks it is of great importance to include different voices and she believes it has enriched the school district. As the superintendent she is often having to make decisions that affect hundreds of families and sometimes she must implement orders from other people like different government levels, doctors, specialists in the subject and the all the different opinions of parents. A clear example is during snow days when she has to make a decision whether to cancel classes or not, "It's not like I wake up one morning, I look out the window and I say, God looks bad outside I think I'll cancel classes, I know a lot of parents think that and I have a daughter who goes to public schools and many tell her , "Tell your mom to cancel classes because it's snowy" but things don't work that way, we have protocols to follow and a large team consisting of the different departments, communication, and all the people who support in the different buildings, we also check the temperature, there are established protocols that dictate that if the temperature is below a certain number what can happen to the children waiting for the school bus outside , whether it is safe or not safe, we also have to take into account the bus company if it is very cold they find it difficult to get the buses going, during those days we get up very early and drive through the streets, because the main streets may be clean but the small ones not and the buses that pick up the children can not enter. Making the decision to cancel classes is a very complex decision, parking lots can be dangerous, and then we have to take families into account, many have to go to work and the children will stay home alone and we don't know if they have food, it's a complex situation, which takes a lot of things into consideration as a team."
We also spoke to Dr. Thompson about deficiencies in communication with our Spanish-speaking families considering that Hispanic students are already a majority in many of Wichita's schools, she told us that they had already an idea that something was failing in communication with Latino families, however , this pandemic not only proved that suspicion, but they have also been discovering other areas where they also need to improve. She told us that it is not that they were not making an effort to communicate but what they were doing it was not being effective. The first step they intend to take to change this is to hire a bilingual communication specialist who can develop strategies to effectively communicate with the Spanish-speaking community either through social media, the website and platforms, because she said, they want that communication to be reciprocal and for parents to feel heard as well. Another important piece is that she wants to make sure that those students with a different cultural background are successful in school, so it is important that teachers receive cultural awareness training to learn more about the culture of these students and their families, "Teachers need to know who they are teaching to and where these students come from so that they can develop the best strategy and relate to them in different ways and we believe if they can understand who is sitting in front of them they're going to have better results."
The Superintendent shared with us the back-to-school plan. On Thursday, the Wichita Schools board approved that plan, which could begin on September 8 or 9 if.
This plan can be carried out if statistics of people infected with COVID-19 are stopped or decreased. Otherwise the only option for everyone will be online learning. The options that Wichita public schools have for their families are:
OPTION 1: ONSITE, In-Person Learning: Students will enroll in their school and attend classes at their usual schedules just as they did before the pandemic with the new mandates of using masks, sanitizer, and temperature checks. Teachers will take time to teach students the new protocols to follow. There will be some changes such as school transportation where students will have designated seats to monitor any incidents.
OPTION 2: MySchool Remote, Online Learning: Students will enroll in the school they belong to, but the teaching will be 100% online, they will have a teacher and will have to respect the schedules in front of their computer, they will be provided with an electronic device, they will have a full day of classes as if they went to their school, parents, teachers and students will be signing a learning record.
OPTION 3: Academy Education Imagine, Virtual School: A computer or tablet is given to the student to do the work on flexible schedules at their own pace. This system is recommended for self-motivated students who do not need an adult's instruction to complete their assignments. In this option students do not belong to their school or the Magnet School they attend, if applicable, and if they are at a Magnet school and choose this option they will lose their place at that school and if they want to return they will have to apply again and wait for the process.
Parents will need to select the most convenient option for their family or student at the beginning of classes. They will have a grace period for them to find out if it is what they need, but once they select after that grace period they will have to stay in that option for the rest of the semester, at the end of the semester they will have the choice to stay in that option or change.
A group of Wichita school staff has been meeting daily in recent months to design these options, Dr. Thompson explains, "We have decided as a district that the right of choice is important to our families and we want to provide the opportunity for our families to select." However, if the numbers of the virus continue to increase, the only option for all will be online education.
It is imperative to start registering your kids regardless of the option you want to choose or even if you do not yet know which option you will choose. If when enrolling your children, you make a choice and before starting classes you decide that you rather change it, you will have the option to change during a grace period. Truancy rules will still be in effect. Kansas law is strict and the legal consequences for parents if they do not enroll their children in school could be from fines for negligence or even the removal of the children´s custody by the state government.
According to Dr. Thompson, to ensure the safety and health of students, teachers and school staff are already preparing, for example, they will take the time to teach them how to properly use the mask, how to wash their hands properly, social distancing, etc. School staff will be back to work on August 5 as stipulated before, to start preparing everything and be ready to welcome students. In the case of middle and high schools, there will be protocols that everyone will have to follow, such as the corridors will be used in a single direction and the students will no longer change classrooms, now the teachers are the ones who will change classrooms. General assemblies will be cancelled, perhaps done virtually- They will clean the rooms and remove material so that there is more space, in some spaces they will put flexi glass if necessary. At lunch, elementary school children will eat in their classrooms, and in middle and high schools specific places will be designated for students to eat. Protocols will also be established to identify and inform families if there are clusters at a school or if their children have been exposed to a person with covid-19. The care of children with disabilities will be the same as always following the new prevention measures with the use of masks, gloves, disinfectant, etc.
One of the biggest concerns of parents is that their children will not endure the use of masks, Dr. Thompson explains that she has spoken to other schools in other districts where they have already started classes and where they thought that the use of the mask in students would be one of the biggest problems, that has not been the case, they say that the children come to school put on their mask and start working. At the end of the interview, the Superintendent wanted to thank our Latino community for their patience in adapting to the whole situation when the pandemic started like some families who didn't have a computer for their children to do their homework and that's why the Wichita School District is now investing $24 million in computer equipment and planning to invest another $7 million in internet services, as for our Latino community she told us, "I want you to know that we think about you and see our statistics and see that lack of connectivity and technology and we believe that it has to do with the lack of effective communication that we have had in the past with the Latino community and the lack of strategy to communicate and I assure you that we will be working on that " she also said that once the classes take their course she would like to plan some listening sessions with the parents to listen to their concerns and needs "I really want to listen and I want to learn what we can do to better serve and engage our families."
Another important person on this issue is Ron Rosales, the only Latin American representative on the board of the Wichita School District. He voted Thursday to keep the governor's executive order to postpone the return to school until September 8 or 9. I had the opportunity to talk to him after the meeting.
Mr. Rosales represents the Wichita School District 6, the area includes North, Heights and Northeast High Schools, and the Wichita North Area Elementary and Middle Schools. He told us that in recent days he has been receiving hundreds of calls and emails from teachers and parents, with different opinions on the subject, to ask him to vote for and against the executive order. As for the education model that the school district presented on Thursday for this school year, he told us that he approved it however he would like to see a hybrid option, where students go to school for a few days and other days they work from home.
Mr. Rosales's biggest concern at this point is the low number of Latinos who are graduating from high school. He also told us that he would like to see more Latino Parents getting involved and suggest to our community to organize their own Parent Committees (PTO) to make their voices heard and valued.
Mr. Rosales was a middle school teacher for several years before being elected to the board of directors and you can see him representing the community during the meetings that the board holds to approve everything concerning the education of Wichita public school students.
It is important that as a community we inform ourselves and understand how the system that is educating our children works so that we can also participate with our opinions either through our children's schools, school district leaders, or board members.
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