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Kansas Superintendents Talk Best Practices for Remote Learning

One year after a pandemic forced schools to set up new learning environments and change the way they conduct classes, superintendents in the Manhattan, Kansas area reflect on hurdles and accomplishments.

by AJ Dome, The Manhattan Mercury, Kan. / March 10, 2021

(TNS) — Educators say they are learning a lot from their experiences leading their schools through the coronavirus pandemic. 

School districts across the nation shifted the way they conducted classes and created school environments on the fly after the pandemic started last March. Administrators said access to technology and maintaining safe spaces were the biggest hurdles.

One year later, area superintendents say there is a light at the end of the tunnel. Now, schools' previous hurdles are assets that districts hope to continue to maintain in the years to come.

USD 383 Manhattan-Ogden 

Assistant superintendent Eric Reid said some of his staff members had a "crash course" on technology training to prepare for the start of the 2020-21 school year last September. He said Zoom has been the biggest tool used by his team members to hold meetings in a more efficient way.

"Everybody had to grow in their comfort level with new technologies and changes in their daily routine," Reid said. "You could call it forced growth."

USD 475 Junction City

Superintendent Reginald Eggleston said each school in the district created a re-entry plan for the start of the 2020-21 school year. The district installed school buildings with specialized air purification systems, along with mandatory mask-wearing and regular sanitization.

Eggleston said that kind of environmental control will carry over into the future.

"Being proactive and having a process in place helped us in a lot of ways," Eggleston said.

USD 320 Wamego

Superintendent Tim Winter said he is hopeful for a more normal end to this school year.

"If we can get through spring break with little to no changes in our (COVID-19) numbers, I can see the last few weeks of school being very normal," Winter said.

Prior to the pandemic, Winter said his district was on a 1:1 technology ratio, meaning each student in the district had a digital device to aid with classes. Teaching programs like Google Classroom and SeeSaw are also being used by USD 320, and Winter said this past year has emphasized how valuable it is to have technology in students' hands.

"(Students are) willing to do some things they're not used to doing, or not the most comfortable with," Winter said.

USD 329 Wabaunsee

Superintendent Brad Starnes said he has 471 students in his district, and some of the issues larger school districts were facing when the pandemic struck did not affect USD 329 the same way.

"Some of those issues we didn't have to deal with as much, just because of some facility-related things, like smaller class sizes," Starnes said.

By installing HVAC filters and portable air scrubbers throughout school buildings, along with other COVID-19 health protocols, the district was able to start their school year on the published Aug. 14 date. Starnes said the ability to control the health and environment of a school building is something which will stick around once the pandemic has passed.

"We're always looking for what's best for students, and that changes on a consistent basis," Starnes said.

USD 384 Blue Valley-Randolph

John Cox started as superintendent in July 1, 2020, taking the reins during preparations for a pandemic school year. He said the sanitizing of desks, mask-wearing, and regular hand-washing will continue to be implemented in his schools going into the next school year even if the coronavirus restrictions in the county are relaxed.

"We've found them to be best practice," Cox said. "Our cases of the common cold and flu, and strep throat, have been lessened this year because of masks and sanitizing."

Cox said technology purchases also have improved the district's ability for remote learning, and the lessons learned from the pandemic will be important tools in teachers' tool bags.

"It's hard to think about all the things we've done because most of it will carry on with us in some capacity," Cox said.

USD 323 Rock Creek Schools

Superintendent Kevin Logan said getting digital devices into students' hands, expanding the school's wireless internet access with hotspots, and providing delivered meals to students were some of the biggest obstacles his district had to overcome.

Logan said Rock Creek also increased its counseling staff to have five full-time employees on hand, as well as a mental health interventionalist funded through a state Department of Education grant. Other local districts have added mental health support staff and counselors to help students navigate their feelings during the pandemic and beyond.

"Most of it is just letting kids know we're there and we care for them, that we're looking out for their best interests," Logan said.

Logan said broadcasting or live-streaming school events, such as sports games or concerts, also will carry on beyond the pandemic.

"There are silver linings in all clouds," Logan said.

(c)2021 The Manhattan Mercury, Kan. Distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC.

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