More than 20 million K-12 students across the country are at home today due to COVID-19 virus control measures. While the virus didn’t arrive as rapidly in Kansas in as some other states, all public schools are now closed in the state.

Decisions to suspend classes were being made by local school leaders who follow guidelines based on information from the national Center for Disease Control. The Kansas State Department of Education has formed a team of experts to build a plan for the closures and general information can be found at its website www.ksde.org.

Closing schools can help prevent the spread of COVID-19 but more is involved when schools shut down than simply moving to online assignments. This is because schools are fundamental to the Kansas economy and social services. According to Education Weekly, when schools are closed not only can student-learning stop, childcare for workers, referrals to essential public services and food and safety support for high-need students are interrupted as well.

Since public education is committed to equity for all students, the KSDE team will look beyond online learning to explore ways to serve at-risk students, those with special education needs, students requesting mental health services and students receiving free or reduced-price meals — all students who cannot be served adequately through internet programs.

In Kansas the situation is compounded by the large, rural student population. According to the National Center for Educational Statistics data 197 of Kansas’ 286 districts are rural and more than 28 percent of K-12 students attend rural schools.

Although 100 percent of Kansas schools have access to high-speed, broadband access, schools cannot rely solely on e-Learning when students stay home because many rural students do not have fast, reliable internet access in their homes. The health crisis has revealed a major student equity issue that needs addressing.

School leaders, teachers and families are working together long hours to respond to the needs of everyone through this health care storm. It’s the storm itself that’s called attention to the huge structural need and a vital learning opportunity involving broadband availability.

Politicians have been talking for years about the need to provide more and better broadband access in rural Kansas to foster economic growth but now we can see the need to connect rural Kansas is much broader. It affects students’ ability to reach their learning potential. Rural students need the capability to access information that may be outdated or not in textbooks or do research beyond the boundaries of school libraries.

During the crisis, teachers likely, in addition to making online assignments, will return to “old school” solutions and send groups of students packets of printed work to cover course material. For the long-run, Kansas needs to continue to support the role of schools as community centers, especially for high-need/high poverty students.

As for broadband availability, recently a statewide broadband expansion task force, a briefing book report from the Kansas Legislative Research Department and a statewide factfinding trip by Lieutenant Governor Lynn Rogers each recommended affordable, available, effective broadband for rural areas. A bill is currently moving through the legislature that will, if it becomes law, offer a broadband grant program. Kansas needs this legislation for the future of its youth and its economy.

 

Sharon Hartin Iorio is the dean emerita of Wichita State University College of Education.

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