Table of Experts: Safeguarding the Mental and Physical Well-being of Students & Staff During a Pandemic

Interior of a brightly lit and new school library by McCownGordon Construction

As seen in the Kansas City Business Journal. 

How do you safely educate students during a pandemic? School board members, administrators, teachers and support staff charged with this challenge face unprecedented circumstances. Yet, decisions being made at every level of the educational system affect not only the students and staff, but also the entire community.

As a company heavily invested in the mental and physical health of students and staff, McCownGordon brought together industry leaders to talk through how they are meeting this challenge. Luke Deets, K-12 market leader of McCownGordon, moderated the discussion, which ranged from anticipating the needs of students and their families in constantly changing circumstances to creating new strategies to ensure the well-being of students and staff.

Luke Deets of McCownGordon: What types of concerns are families and staff raising about returning to school?

Linda Quinley of Kansas City Public Schools (KCPS): Parents are concerned about two things. They want their children in school safely, and they want to make sure that our processes are going to create a safe environment. For example, they want to know about what happens when someone tests positive.

Transportation is another area of concern. Social distancing on a bus is impractical and impossible if you’re going to transport the same number of students that you normally do with the same number of buses you have.

The hope is that we can find a safe way to get more kids into school as the year progresses. Parents believe, and we believe, that it’s better for their children to be in front of their teachers every day.

Our staff has those same concerns, but they get a little more into the weeds on things like air quality. What are we doing to make sure that we have good airflow inside every classroom? What are we doing to make sure that the hallways and the heavily trafficked areas in the cafeterias and shared large spaces are safe?

Staff is also concerned about their class size and social distancing with their students.

But our employees do have a perceived risk of coming back into the buildings with a large number of students. We do hear that quite a bit. Some teachers elected to resign out of that very concern before we decided to start the school year fully virtual.

Deets: John, how about in Olathe?

John Allison of Olathe Public Schools: It’s very similar to what Linda described. You have a full continuum of concerns. You have parents who want their kids back in school full-time in K-12. You have teachers who are also supportive of that. And then, you have others who are concerned about their safety.

While we know quite a bit about COVID-19, we don’t know a lot about COVID-19 and what the impact will be on our community as well as our families when we bring kids back in on a full-time basis.

Schools are trying to balance student safety, staff safety and community desires.

Schools were not designed to set up remote learning and all the options that we’re trying to provide right now. And it’s been a real challenge.

Deets: How are districts responding to COVID-19 and reducing its impact? Please share the status of virtual and in-person learning in your districts as well. Robert, let’s start with you.

Robert McLees of North Kansas City Schools: The students can elect to stay virtual or they can go in person. In our sixth-grade centers, middle schools and high schools, kids are split alphabetically by last names into two groups for in-person learning. One group goes to school on Monday and Tuesday. The schools are closed on Wednesdays for deep cleaning. The other group of kids will come in on Thursday and Friday. So essentially, your student would go to school in person two days a week.

Elementary school students are going in person every day of the week. The school district worked closely with the Clay County health director to establish guidelines for getting information out to families and then staying up on changes as they occurred.

But our superintendent and top leadership faced the same challenges Linda and John expressed. Obviously, we had IT challenges. In our district, every student got new iPads and laptops. Nearly every other support unit had to make adjustments as well to get the school started off right.

Deets: Linda, is KCPS offering in-person or virtual instruction?

Quinley: We are 100% virtual right now. We had originally hoped that our K-3 children would be back to school by mid-October, but we’re not feeling ready yet, as we watch the numbers. We still have a very high percentage of COVID-19 cases, as compared to what is advised.

But we have spent the summer investing in a lot of custodial-related equipment and supplies and changing processes and protocols. This includes getting signage up in our buildings for one-way traffic, reminders for children of when and how to wash their hands, and creating ways to safely and efficiently take temperatures.

IT and technology devices have been a huge piece of our summer work as we prepared for starting virtually. KCPS did not have a 1-1 ratio for students and devices when the pandemic hit. So when we were trying to figure out how to provide digital instruction in the spring, we were doing one device per household in some instances, because we simply didn’t have enough take-home devices. We do now.

Like a lot of people across the country, regardless of the industry, we face delays in getting devices, components for devices and some PPE. So we have some students on an iPad right now who should be on a Chromebook. And when the Chromebooks get here, we’ll switch those out. That causes challenges because the devices don’t necessarily work perfectly for what that child is doing at home.

Technology probably has been the most difficult challenge for us in this virtual phase. We’re working through this while trying to also be ready to come back in November.

Deets: John, how has Olathe adapted?

Allison: Our middle and high school students started remotely. We started elementary students as a hybrid of in-person and remote learning. But starting the first week of October, all of the elementary students came back to school five days a week.

We’re experiencing the same challenges related to custodial supplies, environmental conditions, and processes and procedures. Schools are designed to be efficient. They weren’t designed for social distancing. Figuring out how passing periods and lunch periods will work is an enormous undertaking.

Technology has been a huge issue for every school district. We had a 1-1 ratio with laptops and high school students and a 1-1 ratio with iPads and middle school students. But we had a 2-1 ratio for elementary students. We had to add over 9,000 devices.

The bigger challenge for us was researching and selecting a learning management system. In the spring, each teacher chose which virtual learning platform to use. So parents and students often had multiple logins, and it was very confusing. Getting a learning management system so that everything could track through one platform was very important.

Usually, consultants recommend implementing a new learning management system over a year or 18 months. You have to research it, select it, implement it, and then train 3,000 staff members. We did it in three months.

Schools overall have done a good job trying to get that set up and moving forward. There continue to be glitches. It doesn’t always work right out of the chute, and you have to adjust. At the same time, we’re trying to do it all without adding staff. We couldn’t double our technology staff even though they went from supporting 15,000 devices to supporting 31,000 devices.

Working with those limited resources and support aspects is another challenge that school districts have had to face as we started the school year.

Quinley: John is right. You have to get the devices. But then you have to have something with which your teachers can digitally instruct and track. That’s been an equal challenge.

We would be remiss if we didn’t talk a little bit about how we’ve all had to transition to feeding children during this time period. In our district, 100% of our students qualify for free and reduced-priced lunches. Many children get breakfast and lunch at school Monday through Friday.

To continue to feed those children, we’ve had to transition to more costly per pupil methods. Pre-packaged foods are more expensive than fresh meals created by our fabulous cooks. When I buy a Uncrustable, it’s going to be more expensive than if I make a peanut butter and jelly sandwich. But that Uncrustable is going to last longer. And it’s going to hold up better if I send it home with students.

There are some real heroes in the child nutrition programs across the world right now who are making sure that kids are fed, and fed well. That’s really been a huge transition for us.

Deets: Is access to Wi-Fi a large challenge for some students in your districts?

Allison: Absolutely. During this spring, our principals contacted each family to try to find out who did and did not have access to the internet so we could get a better handle on just how big of an issue it would be going into the fall.

We are leasing almost 1,500 hotspots. It will cost nearly $1 million to provide students with the hotspots and the data they need if we have to continue to do that throughout the year.

Some families have multiple devices. So even if they have the internet, the hotspot may not be able to handle online learning for multiple kids in the family as well as parents who are working from home. Connectivity is a big issue, and the challenge is greater in some pockets of the communities.

McLees: Our district works with families to provide hotspots in their homes. When students have not been online for a few days, our staff will do home visits to see what the problem is.

Families are coping with all kinds of issues. When I work with a parent who is struggling getting their student to school, I try to simplify it as much as I can. If they can get their child to the bus to go to school and pick them up after school, the school can take care of the rest of the day. The school tries to meet students’ needs, everything from counseling to food.

We take a holistic approach, and the schools are doing an excellent job.

Deets: Obviously, the pandemic had a significant impact on your budgets. How will the pandemic and recession impact this year’s budget as well as future budgets?

Quinley: Because of shortfalls in state revenues, the governor of Missouri withheld public funding to schools in June and July of this year. That affects two different fiscal years because our fiscal year ends June 30. But basically, between June and July, Kansas City Public Schools lost $7 million of anticipated revenues.

At the same time, sales tax revenue was declining across the state, which is second to property taxes as the largest source of funding for schools. They’ve steadied since August and September, but that’s a permanent loss of our reserve balances. Good fund balances, which we had, help you weather these types of decreases in funding.

We’ve also had to take on these additional costs. As of the end of September, we’ve spent $6 million of our reserves on top of that loss of $7 million of revenues. That’s above the CARES Act money we received, too.

In addition to the costs of making sure our facilities, students and staff were safe and the costs of providing students with hotspots, we had to bring teachers in for an extra day of training — and pay them for that day — so they could learn to function in a COVID-19 system when we were back in school.

We also needed $300,000 in materials to accommodate the different learning environments. We had to buy materials that kids would usually access at school to send home with the students.

The spending is significant to accomplish all of this. The school board authorized the use of reserves, and we’re applying for grants. Jackson County recently authorized some money, which we are really grateful for. This helps offset some of these costs.

The long-term implications of this is the real question. Before I worked in public schools, I was in banking. In the private sector, when things get expensive, you raise fees. And the market takes care of the interest rates.

In public education, we can’t raise our fees, because we don’t charge anything. We don’t have the ability to plan and recover on the revenue side. All we can control is expenses in public education. The revenues are going to look a little bleak the next few years, especially if property values decrease and sales tax revenue continues to be fairly flat.

We are going to have to watch carefully and plan accordingly. It may be easier for people to understand when I have to ask: “Is that a necessary expense? Or is that something that we could put off and still not impact kids and their ability to learn?”

Deets: John, how has the Olathe School District’s budget been affected?

Allison: It’s going to put immense pressure on school districts not just this year but also over the next couple of years. We were fortunate in Kansas that we didn’t see a reduction in school funding as we’ve started the school year.

I know some folks assume that the CARES Act funding that districts received covered all of these additional costs. We received about $1.7 million, which sounds like a lot. It covered the purchasing of the PPE and supplies we needed for our buildings that will get us through about the first 12 weeks of school.

The adjustments we’ve had to make in staffing, technology, food service and all of the other components are putting pressures on school budgets.

Linda’s absolutely correct. School districts are having to spend their fund balances to get them where they need to be now and to get them where they will need to be to finish the end of the school year. And with the loss of those revenues and potential cuts that could come to public education, it will be a struggle.

I worry less about this year than I do about the next year and the year after that. In Kansas, school districts basically do a headcount around September 20. We’ll be down about 800 students because of parents electing to homeschool or pursue other educational options. That’s a big funding hit that will catch up to us next year.

It’s going to have a multiple-year impact on state funding, which correlates directly to school funding. And I think there’ll be some tough choices in the next couple of years about how schools are going to be able to balance those budgets.

Deets: Dr. Lewis, how have you taken mental well-being into account during the COVID-19 pandemic while maintaining a focus on physical health and safety?

Anthony Lewis of Lawrence Public Schools: This important work began before the pandemic. A community listening and learning process resulted in a five-year strategic plan. Two of the focus areas of the plan include safe and supportive schools for students and effective employees. Our objectives for the former include encouraging positive student behaviors and reducing those that interfere with learning, providing safe and welcoming schools that engage every student, and fostering authentic and caring adult connections.

We learned a lot from a simple index card activity. Our schools asked secondary students to write down the name of at least one trusted adult they could count on for support at school. We filmed my conversation with the educators who were mentioned most by students so their colleagues could learn some successful relationship-building strategies. The blank index cards of students who couldn’t come up with even one name of a trusted adult at school showed us that clearly, we have work to do. Building administrators assigned staff members to engage these students and start building positive relationships.

In addition to continuing to work on adaptive challenges, we have taken some immediate steps forward. A full-time counselor works at each of the 14 elementary schools in our district, which have between 200 and 500 students. We adopted a social skills curriculum for prevention education. Each school has bullying and suicide prevention plans and a positive behavior support system.

In the area of effective employees, we want to create positive and supportive work environments that enable the success and well-being of every employee. We’ve started “growing our own” through an apprenticeship license program to support classified staff in becoming certified and a teacher cadet program for students. Our human resources staff now conducts both stay and exit surveys.

The district also applied for and received a Kansas Leadership Center training grant to build our administrative bench strength. With Professional Learning Communities established in all schools, we give team members a voice in decision-making and build leadership capacity.

With these student and employee support goals identified, communicated and integrated into our school improvement plans, we had a bit of a jump-start on this important work to help carry us through challenging times.

Deets: During the past few years, school districts have placed a bigger emphasis on students’ mental health needs. John, how has that conversation changed with students attending school virtually?

Allison: Mental health has been a focus for the past several years. As we looked at our educational plans, we made sure to continue to build that in. We continued our social and emotional lessons that we would typically do, whether we were teaching remotely or in person.

Remote learning can cause students to feel isolated. Providing counseling and emotional support is difficult to do in a virtual format. While hybrid arrangements are a struggle for teachers and parents, it does provide counselors and school psychologists with the opportunity to meet with students face to face.

All of these efforts to support students and families have absolutely nothing to do with standards or assessments. But that’s just a huge piece of what we do for our students. We’ll continue to work on how best to meet students’ needs in today’s circumstances, but it has been a challenge.

Deets: What are some strategies schools can use to help manage stress for our students and staff in times of uncertainty?

Lewis: We teach social-emotional character development skills. Social-emotional learning helps students understand how to manage emotions, develop concern for others, set and achieve goals, and make responsible decisions for themselves. Student-centered learning is one of the areas of our strategic plan as we seek to meet the individual academic, social, emotional and behavioral needs of all students. Our schools use the Student Risk Screening Scale survey to understand the social-emotional needs of students, determine tiered interventions and provide support.

Building strong relationships with caring adults at school supports students in feeling comfortable with communicating their needs. We listen. We have courageous conversations about difficult topics affecting our lives, such as the pandemic and racial inequities and other social injustices. Our schools strive to give students choice and empower them to take ownership of their own learning. We prioritize strong collaborations with school families and community partners, such as the Bert Nash Community Mental Health Center and other social service agencies.

The district provides space for connecting with and listening to employees. Involving staff in the decision-making process is central to the work of our Professional Learning Communities. Our staff wellness program seeks to provide employees with opportunities for physical health and social-emotional support, such as healthy eating classes, walking competitions and workshops on topics like caring for the caregiver.

For immediate personal needs, the health insurance benefits the district provides include an employee assistance program with access to online resources and no-cost or low-cost professional help.

Deets: Robert, has the pandemic affected the protocols related to the physical safety and security of the students?

McLees: All of our schools have front-entry systems and cameras. We’ve done a better job in the past few years of monitoring those in real time. We look at how to make classrooms safe. Obviously, active shooters are the biggest concern. Even though they are incredibly rare, we still need to train for those emergencies.

The Kansas City Fire Department and the Missouri School Boards’ Association created guidelines for drills during the pandemic. For example, instead of having one fire drill for the whole school, you have several fire drills for smaller groups of students, such as one wing of the school. You can still do all of the things you need to do. It just may take longer. But those fire, tornado and active shooter drills are what keep the kids and staff safe.

As long as everybody still knows where to go and the basics of what to do, your school will be safe.

Deets: Has the pandemic distracted us from the important security conversations of our facilities and educational environment?

McLees: To be honest, the pandemic hasn’t changed or distracted us from school safety and security. The principals are in charge of their own building, and that’s how it works best. They are still very cognizant of everything pre-pandemic.

There are challenges with social distancing and bringing kids in through one entrance. Now we want to use multiple entrances for kids to enter the school and exit the school. Obviously, you need more staff to serve as door monitors. And you have more car riders.

Schools had to adapt their processes. Before the pandemic, you called a student’s name and they would get in a car and leave. Now, you can’t put all 200 kids in one gym while they wait for their parents. Everything takes a little more time.

But their thoughts about safety and security haven’t changed at all.

Deets: Linda, do you agree?

Quinley: From a safety perspective, I think Rob’s spot-on. From a facility perspective, you have to look at each building based on its own merits or lack of merits, in some cases. In the 1960s, someone in Kansas City thought it was a good idea to design schools without windows. Today, few people think that was a good idea. Yet, we have buildings without windows. During this pandemic, we want to circulate fresh air. How do we do that in spaces where you can’t open a window?

We’ve been forced to invest in some HEPA filtration systems and MERV 13 filters to make sure that we’re capturing and removing as much as we can, but there are physical restrictions in our buildings that make it difficult.

The physical structure and systems in school buildings are going to be costly as we try to make sure that we have the best possible air quality inside the buildings.

Allison: I agree that the focus hasn’t changed, but as Robert said, the processes and procedures have. That’s an additional load to put on our teachers and our principals.

Quinley: We provide breakfast and sometimes lunch to students in the classroom. If I’m a teacher, that’s two new cleaning times that didn’t used to be in my schedule. As you transition in and out of those meals, that cuts into instruction time and teachers’ break times.

Teachers have very little time in the day when they can get away to get their own lunch or even take a restroom break. It’s difficult for the teachers to have children in their classroom from the start of the day to the end of the day.

Deets: The pressures on schools and school districts today are so different from what they were nine months ago. What would you say to your communities about the work that is being done by the school districts to maintain physical, mental and COVID-related safety within each school district?

McLees: I have been impressed by the amount of leadership at the top levels. They are under a lot of pressure. Many people are questioning their decisions, both citizens and staff. They’ve done a really good job of staying the course for what’s best for the students, staff and schools.

Quinley: I’ve enjoyed my career in public education, but I’m thankful it hasn’t been my entire career because it has given me an opportunity to really help friends and family and people that I interact with understand education in a different way. Most people understand what’s happening in school based on their own child’s experience or their own personal experience. And that student may be one of 15,000.

Being a school superintendent is difficult any day of the week. Try being a school superintendent now when your customer base expects you to get it right for each and every one of them individually. That’s become more impossible than ever right now.

There have been more pivots in public education in the last six months than there have in the past six years. Internally, our mantra is to give one another grace and to accept that we’re going to make mistakes as we try to get this right. That’s what we need from our communities right now. We need their support, and we need them to find out how they can help an individual child or the system as a whole.

Trust that we’re going to do the best we can every day of the week, because all of us want the children progressing and moving forward.

Deets: Dr. Lewis, what steps have you taken to create a positive environment for students’ and teachers’ mental health?

Lewis: Some specific examples of the Lawrence school district’s efforts to support the health and well-being of students include organizing marathon clubs at each elementary school to encourage student exercise and physical fitness. We provide a Farm 2 School outdoor education program with opportunities for students to plant, tend and harvest, and eat, donate or sell the produce they grow.

Lawrence Public Schools has thriving fine arts and athletics programs in which students can pursue their creativity and passions. Each of our high schools supports more than 40 individual clubs based on student interests. These extra- and co-curricular activities often are the hook that some of our students need to stay engaged with school.

The district also has developed Equity Leadership Teams at each of our schools for staff members to lead continued discussions of racial equity and ongoing examination of policies, procedures and practices that may pose barriers to progress. A Staff of Color support group gives employees a safe affinity space for bonding with peers and discussing celebrations and concerns.

In addition to individual teacher awards, each of our schools and support sites host a monthly recognition program for all employee groups. The Lawrence Schools Foundation provides staff supplies, classroom grants and staff recognition, including presenting a $5,000 and a $10,000 award to deserving staff members annually.

Deets: John, what would you like the community to know?

One of those conversations that we have multiple times a day is around how we communicate why we make the decisions we do. Fairly early this summer, we decided that we wanted to communicate even when we knew things were going to change. So by taking that approach, at times, people said we weren’t being transparent.

Linda used the word pivot. I think we’ve spun because we’ve had to pivot in so many different ways. Trying to take parent and staff input on the plans we’ve put forth and then to make those changes based on that input creates another firestorm. We hear, “You said you were going to do this, and now you’re going to do that.”

That’s the difficult piece right now. Families are stressed; communities are stressed. People want life to be like it was, and why aren’t schools that way? There’s just an immense amount of frustration. We’re seeing that in emails and on Facebook and Twitter.

So, for schools, the challenge is to filter through staff and community feedback, make adjustments and then communicate those changes in a way that’s timely and doesn’t overload everybody. Everybody’s overloaded already. So, the more you add, the more that increases the stress.

Communication is always important. But getting it right and trying to make the decision on how we’re going to communicate for the school district are priorities as well as more difficult challenges right now.

Deets: Any closing thoughts?

Quinley: We’re adjusting to the new normal in education. This could be our normal for some time. The end goal is we’d like to have children with teachers as much as possible so that good learning happens.

But the leadership decision is going to always focus on safety first, for the adults and the children and our community as a whole.

So we’re grateful that our community has been kind and generous. As Dr. Allison said, not every email is positive and supportive because things work differently for each family facing its own set of circumstances. But we know that children being in person with teachers is what’s best for them.

All of our educators and support staff want to do what’s right for kids. And every child in the area needs that and deserves that. We’re all trying to figure out how we do that now safely.

We know that this year is going to be imperfect. We’re going to do the best job we can to keep it moving, and we learned a lot from last year. I’m optimistic. We’re going to continue to pivot a lot, and we’re going to do it because that’s what needs to be done.

Allison: In closing, I would like to say thank you to school boards — probably the worst elected position you could hold in America right now. And these are volunteers who ran for office for their local school districts because they care about education and students. They’re being put in incredibly difficult positions right now, trying to make decisions for the safety of students, staff and the entire community.

It’s really the school districts that are front and center in trying to help with the issues within their community. They just have an immense task right now.

I want to thank them for their service, because they’re truly representing their communities and trying to do what’s best for our students both in the short term and the long term. They’re having to make some really difficult decisions, and they deserve our thanks.