Senate passes in-person education bill

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The Kansas Senate on Wednesday approved legislation that would require public schools to offer full, in-person learning no later than March 26.

The Senate voted 26-12 to pass a bill introduced by Senate President Ty Masterson, who said that remote learning during the pandemic caused student learning to fall behind and placed a burden on parents. The bill now goes to the House.

Critics said the bill was driven by an emotional desire to see children return to the classroom and imposes a state mandate that runs counter to legislative efforts to let local governments make their own decisions about public health orders.

Supporters of the bill said it was not really a mandate and it only required school districts to provide a “full-time, in-person attendance option” for students in elementary and secondary schools.

The bill contains no penalty for not adhering to the proposed law.

“This is not a mandate, this is just a strong recommendation,” said Republican state Sen. Rick Kloos of Berryton. “It’s a nudge.”

Republican state Sen. Dan Kerschen of Garden Plain echoed a similar view. He said the fact that there was no penalty gives school districts a form of local option.

Democratic lawmakers pointed out that the bill’s language said school districts “shall” provide an in-person option for instruction, meaning that it was a mandate.

“In addition to being essentially moot and unenforceable, this bill is another mandate which overrides local control by our duly elected state Board of Education and local school board members,” said Senate Minority Leader Dinah Sykes.

“It is also yet another example of dramatic overreach by this body and its leadership that doesn’t like decisions made by officials chosen and trusted by our communities,” Sykes said.

“Everyone wants things to go back to normal. Everyone wants this pandemic to end. We cannot legislate this virus away. Bills like this suggest otherwise, which is dangerous and dishonest to the people of Kansas.”

Mark Tallman, lobbyist for the Kansas Association of School Boards, said school districts are trying to return to in-person instruction as safely as possible.

And even if the bill doesn’t contain penalties, the legislation still leaves school districts exposed, he said.

“If it really isn’t a requirement, I guess we’ll still be able to operate, but it’s one of those things I suspect that school boards will still be criticized if they don’t follow it.”

Data from the state education department shows that many school districts are already returning to the classroom.

Only 20 school districts across the state provide remote learning in elementary, middle or high school.

Two hundred and seventy four of the state’s 286 school districts now have returned to in-person instruction in elementary school.

Nine school districts offer a hybrid instruction for elementary schools and three are remote.

Meanwhile, 245 of the state’s 286 school disticts now have returned to in-person instruction in middle school. Thirty-three districts provide hybrid instruction for middle schools, and eight are remote.

For high schools, 240 of the state’s 286 school districts now have returned to in-person instruction, while 37 provide hybrid instruction and nine are remote.

“Since the bill was introduced, a number of schools have announced plans for full-time, in-person learning and that’s a great development,” Masterson said in a statement.

“This bill simply ensures that all Kansas kids will have the same opportunity.”