Superintendents on Hot Seat in Executing School Closures

Servepro employee Joseph Felks cleans chairs and other items at Joyner Elementary School in Tupelo, Miss., as the Tupelo Public School District conducts a cleaning of all its campuses to help combat the spread of the coronavirus while the students are on spring break.
Servepro employee Joseph Felks cleans chairs and other items at Joyner Elementary School in Tupelo, Miss., as the Tupelo Public School District conducts a cleaning of all its campuses to help combat the spread of the coronavirus while the students are on spring break.
—Thomas Wells/The Northeast Mississippi Daily Journal via AP
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The unprecedented shutdown of schools in dozens of states in an effort to stem the coronavirus has put local superintendents on the hot seat as they seek to execute the closure orders and recommendations of their governors.

In some states, superintendents are struggling to figure out whether they’ll have to make up the days at the end of the school year—an expensive and logistically fraught endeavor—or if the missed days will be waived by the legislature, the governor, the state board of education, or the state’s department of education.

And in some states with wide local discretion, that could factor into how long superintendents will keep schools closed and whether or not teachers will have to set up online learning classrooms for their students.

Those decisions are most fraught in states where governors have only “strongly urged” or recommended that school districts close such as in California, Iowa, Kansas, and Texas.

Similarly, as a debate at the Georgia state capitol swirled over what powers Republican Gov. Brian Kemp has to issue emergency orders in the case of a virus outbreak, elected state Superintendent Richard Woods decided Monday to suspend state testing and excuse any missed days school districts issue.

Indiana Gov. Eric Holcomb, a Republican, on Monday left decisions up to local superintendents and said districts can close for up to 20 days this school year without having to make up that classroom time.

“In this case, it may be more of a hodgepodge for the time being. That may best serve the citizens of those individual communities,” Holcomb said, the Associated Press reported. “If we start to see community spread, then we’re going to get more and more involved.”

Who Makes the Call?

Districts in most states are under strict laws to provide a mandated number of hours and days of classroom time. Those mandates can be waived or curtailed by state agencies in the case of weather emergencies such as a blizzard or a tornado that’s wiped out school infrastructure. But few states have policies on the books that hash out who can make those decisions in an instance like a nationwide disease outbreak.

In Iowa and in Kansas, state leaders on Monday were meeting to consider whether or not to “mandate” school closures (and which agency that mandate should come from) and then again who would be responsible to determine how school districts should make up those days.

Superintendents in both states in the last few days have been talking via email, webinars, Skype, Zoom, and sometimes in person, with school board members, professional associations, state representatives, and state education officials to better understand what their options are.

See Also: Coronavirus and Schools

Because those states had mild winters, many districts had at least a week’s worth of snow days built into their school calendars that they could now cash in on without interrupting the school year.

In Kansas, the state’s department of education on Friday told districts that any missed days will have to be made up by June 30; that the district can submit a proposal for the department of education to count e-learning as seat time; or that the district can petition the state board of education or the commissioner of education to waive the state’s mandated hours.

The Kansas legislature is expected to consider a bill this week that would expand the state board of education’s powers to waive missed school days to include circumstances such as a health emergency.

Any decision the state makes could have legal repercussions for years to come, said Mark Tallman, a lobbyist for the Kansas Association of School Boards.

“We’ve never even contemplated something like this,” Tallman said.

The majority of districts in the state were closed on Monday, either for spring break or because of coronavirus, and some local superintendents were extending those spring breaks for another week or even indefinitely.

Extending the school year into June to make up lost days would cause all sorts of financial and logistical hurdles for school districts, including asking teachers to skip summer certification courses and figuring out whether or not the district can afford to keep hourly workers employed for an extra month, Tallman said. Many schools in the state lack air conditioning, making classes that stretch into the summer excruciating.

Iowa Reversal

In Iowa, Republican Gov. Kim Reynolds at 5 p.m. Sunday recommended that school districts stay open, and then just three hours later at 8 p.m., after the state’s health department notified her of community outbreaks of the coronavirus, recommended that districts close for the next four weeks.

Because it was just a recommendation, and the state had not clarified whether or not districts will have to make up the missed days, some districts stayed open Monday while many others closed.

“It’s pretty fluid here right now,” said Roark Horn, the executive director of the School Administrators of Iowa. “We’ve never really been here before. Is it the governor, the health department, the department of education or the legislature that should make these sorts of decisions?”

On Monday afternoon, the governor said the state would consider legislation allowing her to waive the mandatory number of school days, and that would inform her decision on whether to mandate school closures.

Joel Pedersen, the superintendent of Cardinal community school district in Eldon, Iowa, said he was on a Zoom chat on Sunday night with more than 40 other superintendents in his corner of the state trying to determine what the best course forward should be.

“We all had the same questions, and so we’re hoping we can learn from each other and share with each other what we were thinking about,” Pederson said. “It’s nice to have a group of support that’s all going through the same thing. Even though it’s a difficult and stressful situation, we’re here to support each other.”

He talked to his local health department, read recommendations from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and the state’s health department, and then listened to Reynold’s Facebook live press conference before determining last night to close his school district for the next month.

Now he has to figure out whether his district needs to make up the missed days.

“Everything is just moving so quickly that all we can do is to stay focused, stay calm and try to do the best we can for kiddos,” Pederson said.

On the other side of the state, Lynn Johnson, the interim superintendent of Harlan Community Schools, told parents Sunday that, despite the governor’s recommendations, school would remain open Monday, but then would close for the next four weeks. The local health department in her town had yet to discover a coronavirus case, she said.

“I felt it was prudent to keep school open [on Monday] to give parents time to plan for child care and to give kids learning materials and equipment to use” when school is out, she said.

Johnson said Monday morning that the majority of her 1,500 students attended class, but it was virtually impossible to follow several health departments’ recommendations to keep group gatherings under 50 people.

“It’s actually pretty normal,” Johnson said of the atmosphere in the schools on Monday.

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