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Tension Rises in States Over Who Decides When to Reopen Schools

By Evie Blad — July 19, 2020 3 min read
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As schools make plans to address the coronavirus pandemic, administrators in some states are caught up in tensions about who gets the final say about when they can reopen their buildings to students, and what precautions they should take to protect their communities.

Among the questions that drive those tensions: Is reopening schools a question of education or public health? How much discretion should local districts have?

Those questions played out very differently in Kansas and South Carolina this week, where governors made very different declarations about schools.

Those announcements come as President Donald Trump pushes states around the country to reopen their schools to full-time in-person learning. They also came as states across the South face dramatic surges in cases of the virus and related hospitalizations, driving concerns about reopening public spaces too quickly.

In Kansas, a Delayed School Start

Kansas Gov. Laura Kelly, a Democrat, announced Wednesday that she will order schools to remain closed until at least Sept. 8. Schools in the Sunflower State typically start in mid August.

Kelly’s announcement came just hours after the state board of education adopted reopening guidelines, which left it to districts’ discretion to adopt precautions like masks and social distancing.

Citing record high cases in the state, Kelly said her order, which she plans to issue Monday, will mandate some health precautions.

“I can’t in good conscience open schools when cases in our state are at an all-time high and continuing to rapidly rise,” Kelly said. “Every action I have taken throughout this pandemic has been done to keep Kansans healthy, keep our state open for business, and get our kids back in school.”

A Democrat in a traditionally red state, Kelly has faced great pushback for her response to the pandemic from Republican lawmakers who say they favor greater local control. She previously faced a lawsuit when she ordered churches not to hold in-person services, part of an overall ban on large gatherings. And counties around the state voted to opt out of a mask mandate she issued this month.

State legislators have sought to rein in Kelly’s authority to make broad public health orders. Under a compromise bill that took effect last month, the state’s Republican-controlled board of education will have to approve Kelly’s order, the Associated Press reports.

“It is my hope when the board contemplates this decision, they take into consideration that one size doesn’t fit all,” Republican Senate president Susan Wagle said in a statement to KCTV News. “The legislature intended to pass these decisions on to local governing authorities, where teachers, parents, and health care professionals all have a voice and can, in a collaborative manner, do what is best for their children and their community.”

In South Carolina, a Push to Open Buildings

South Carolina Gov. Henry McMaster recommended last week that schools remain closed until after Labor Day, but he also directed Superintendent Molly Spearman not to approve any district plan that doesn’t include an option of five days a week of in-person instruction. Districts were well into their planning process; the announcement came just two days before their plans were due, The State newspaper reported.

“There’s nothing more essential, nothing more important we can do than educate the children of South Carolina,” said McMaster, a Republican. He said remote learning was no substitute for in-person instruction from the state’s educators.

Spearman, who was notably absent when McMaster made the announcement, later voiced her disapproval.

“Our goal must be a return to five-day-a-week, in-person instruction as safely and as soon as possible,” she said. “We cannot, however, turn a blind eye to the health and safety of our students and staff when the spread of the virus in some of our communities is among the highest in the world.”

For Schools, Frustrations With Leadership

Similar tensions are playing out in other states, too.

As Education Week’s Andrew Ujifusa wrote Thursday, school leaders around the country have struggled to keep up with shifts in guidance and directives from state and federal leaders. Some feel they’ve been left with very little support to navigate the overlapping challenges of a pandemic and a struggling economy that threatens their funding and operations.

And state leaders face the twin pressures of calls to get families and businesses back into normal routines and public health data that change every day, making that very difficult.

Read more here.

Photo: Kansas Gov. Laura Kelly speaks during a news conference Wednesday about delaying the first day of school. (Evert Nelson/The Topeka Capital-Journal via AP)