Everyone, it seems, is on pins and needles. Students are wondering what school will be like, parents are worried for their children’s health and learning, teachers are wondering how social distancing can be managed in a typical school, and we’re all wondering if Kansas will ever turn the corner on the coronavirus as we watch cases increase exponentially. Layer on to that the many people who desperately want and need to get back to work and it’s hard to see what the solutions might be.

The Kansas State Board of Education this week is reviewing a massive document, Navigating Change 2020, developed by hundreds of Kansas teachers (many of whom are KNEA members), administrators, school board members, and others to give guidance to school districts as we approach what would normally be the start of a new school year.

And we’ve been thinking about how much all of this is like reacting to a tornado.

We live in a place where we know a thing or two about tornadoes – if not the science of them, at least how to react to them when the experts at the National Weather Service tell us that we’re at risk. We have designated tornado areas in our schools. At home, we have scoped out the best place to shelter; a spot in the back of the unfinished basement; a safe room built into newer homes; maybe an interior bathroom. We’ve thought this out. We’ve noted where the cut-off for the gas line is, the cut-off for the waterline. Some of the best prepared of us have set aside bottled water and energy snacks and equipment like helmets to protect our heads and blankets to protect our bodies from flying debris. These are the things we think about long before the sirens go off. We’re ready to go at the first siren’s wail.

That’s how we’re thinking about the possibility of reopening our schools this year.

We know there are people asserting schools are going to open on time. There are others who think that might not be workable. But it really doesn’t matter what the date of reopening is going to be. What is really important is that when that date is determined, all of us are prepared to go at the drop of a hat and that it is safe to do so. And, just like when a tornado passes through, we will wait for the ‘all clear’ that it is safe to leave our shelters knowing that an ‘all clear’ doesn’t always mean that the threat of tornadoes is completely gone. In fact, they are an ever-present danger and we prepare for them so that we can minimize our risk and continue living normally.

To that end, it is important and helpful to talk about WHEN to reopen in the context of safety, but it is just as important to be talking and planning for HOW we will reopen safely- in other words, what does ‘safe’ look like?

So what about the WHEN? We, like you, have been watching the rise and fall of COVID-19 cases in Kansas. We saw in March how infections were growing rapidly. Kansas Governor Laura Kelly took action by closing schools and businesses and we watched the infection growth decline. Suddenly people felt we had it gotten a handle on the cases and demanded we open up our economy as summer was just beginning and people wanted to gather together to enjoy it. Since large portions of our economy have reopened, we have watched infections grow exponentially.

Other states that reopened even earlier have seen cases increase and grow so badly that they now have to go back to shut-downs in states like Florida, Texas, Arizona, and California. Unfortunately, Kansas looks to be joining that list as we have become No. 11 in the nation for the growth of infections. Medical experts have also indicated that this isn’t just a matter of increased testing, because with all tests there are positive results and negative results, and what we are seeing is an increase in the rates of positive results. In other words, more testing only tracks increased infections when more people test POSITIVE, not just when more people are tested. Now, several states have put Kansans on a 14-day quarantine list for citizens returning after visiting Kansas.

Efforts to mislead, misinform, and misdirect have politicized and polarized this pandemic which has only made its harmful impacts longer-lived and worse. We would be remiss to believe that the full-throated push to reopen at any cost coming from the President down through the extreme right-wing ideologues isn’t all about the November elections. After all, when schools are not open, parents have difficulty working and businesses struggle- these are things that nobody wants and are easily corrected and avoided with a proactive response based on science. With his polling dropping in direct correlation to the spike of COVID infections, hospitalizations, and deaths, our President- more than anything- wants a recovering job market and economy this fall- even if it costs American lives, including those of educators and students. And, given that the virus is raging stronger and stronger as the President continues to deny science and medical expertise, it is clear that chaos and desperation are fueling the reaction from the majority of the right-wing establishment at the federal, state and local levels.

More than anything, teachers want schools open and students learning. We need schools to open. But they can’t open as incubators for the spread of a virus that is markedly deadly and often has lingering ill effects for those who contract the disease associated with it. Given the feckless response from the President’s administration, and given the impact states are dealing with as this disease is rebounding harder than what we’d seen previously, KNEA supports the following:

  • Kansas educators expect the safety of students, educators, and patrons to be the first priority.
  • Kansas educators want schools open and students learning and we are committed to that effort.
  • Wearing face coverings and personal protective equipment should be mandatory to participate in school activities when we reopen, just as wearing helmets, and pads are mandatory to participate in full-contact football.
  • Kansas educators should continue to collaborate, plan, and prepare for schools to reopen including accommodations for safety measures like alternative instructional models, social distancing, and smaller class sizes.
  • Opening Kansas schools should be done so when it is safe to do so, according to medical experts and when doing so offers the best chance to keep schools open even as we continue to deal with the threat of this virus or any others that emerge in the future.
  • The safety of Kansas students, educators, and our schools should not be used as a pawn for political gamesmanship.

Educators from throughout Kansas and the nation have been clear, we need schools to reopen safely. We don’t need to reopen because Donald Trump and Betsy DeVos say we have to. More than anything, this irrational behavior marked by threats and bullying underscores their deep-rooted belief that schools are simply daycare centers that exist FIRST to support the economy and SECOND to educate students. We don’t need to reopen just because picketers demand it or remain closed for the same reason. We need to reopen when the epidemiologists, scientists, and medical experts say it is safe to reopen and under conditions to keep schools safe and open for the long term because that is what is best for kids, for communities, and for our economy. Just like when the National Weather Service issues a tornado warning, the best practice is to shelter in place until the same weather experts give us the all-clear.

We will prepare for this reality. And when Dr. Lee Norman, Secretary of the Kansas Department of Health and Environment, gives us the all-clear, we’ll open safely. And, while the threat of this virus or any other remains ever-present, we will be safe as a result of our preparations, precautions, and planning.

In the meantime, we all need to remember those almost worn-out words, “We’re all in this together.” We won’t get the all-clear until such time as each and every Kansas agrees to take this pandemic seriously and do his or her part to control the spread and bring the infection rate tumbling down. No matter where you live, wear a mask. No matter where you live, practice social distancing. No matter where you live, wash your hands. These are not hard to do. But we must all be determined to beat this virus. Only then can we safely reopen our schools, our communities, and our economy and stay open. To do otherwise puts ourselves and our at children at risk.