Back-to-School Update
September 2021
School districts mired in mask mandates
Mask on, Mask off

Yesterday afternoon a Florida judge said that Governor Ron DeSantis and state education officials could not ban local districts from enacting mask mandates. Shortly after, DeSantis, the education commissioner, the department, and the state board filed an appeal which automatically triggered a stay which means that the state can still punish districts that enact mass mask requirements. 

Arizona Governor Doug Ducey said recently that masking decisions belong to parents, not school officials. 

And the U.S. Department of Education has opened an investigation into whether bans on mask mandates constitute discrimination against kids with special needs. 

As children attempt to return to in-person learning safely, the great mask debate of 2021 has pitted school districts against state leaders in Missouri.

Attorney General (AG) Eric Schmitt filed a class action lawsuit against Columbia Public Schools, arguing that the district mandate is "arbitrary and capricious." In his complaint, he writes, "Parents should have the freedom to choose whether their child wears a mast, not school administrators."

In the face of the fast-spreading Delta Variant, the American Academy of Pediatrics and the Centers for Disease Control recommend masking in schools to protect students and staff and limit community transmission.

Some Missouri districts defend their mask requirements in light of the actions of the AG. 

In Monett, Superintendent Dr. Mark Drake told KY3 ,"We did a lot of looking into data and research and looking into other districts, trying to figure out what was best for our students. We took community input. We had a stakeholder meeting. We did a community survey to try to figure out what was best. So at that point, we decided that it'd be good to require masks for two weeks. That way, we wouldn't have to quarantine a lot of students, and we could keep them in school."

St. Joseph Superintendent Doug Van Zyl says the AG's targeted his lawsuit towards all districts that have issued a mask mandate. 

According to the St. Joseph Post, Van Zyl said, "I believe that Missouri is a local control state and I think communities and towns and cities and school districts have had that ability over the years and to make an adjustment in that now I think could create some challenges down the road."

In Kansas, like Missouri, mask mandates are left up to local districts. Wichita USK 259, the state's largest district, imposed a mask mandate on August 26th after 466 students and 84 staff tested positive for COVID.

"Children are catching the virus, being hospitalized, and dying from COVID at increasingly higher rates. There's nothing more important than keeping our students healthy and in the classroom," Kelly said in a statement. "The Safer Classrooms Workgroup will provide information and guidance to give parents, teachers, school boards, and others the tools they need to make informed decisions to protect our students and our communities."

Kansas spending plan approved, Missouri's under review

On July 22nd, the USDE  approved the  Kansas state plan for the American Rescue Plan (ARP) funds and released the remaining $277 million. States received two-thirds of the funds in March. In total, Kansas received $831 million in ARP funds.

Top priorities for the state outlined include focusing on student, school, and district learning loss and providing summer enrichment opportunities.

"Addressing student academic learning loss as well as the loss of social-emotional connections created by the pandemic has to be our immediate focus," said Kansas Commissioner of Education Dr. Randy Watson. "This infusion of federal aid into our education system allows us to aggressively address these issues to ensure our students get back on track for success."

States must distribute 90 percent of the funds to districts, otherwise known as local education agencies (LEAs). 

Kansas LEAs had until August 20th to submit their spending plans. 

Missouri under review

Missouri's state plan totaling $1.6 billion is still under review. At the last State Board of Education meeting, Dr. Chris Neale explained that the USDE had asked DESE for clarification on a few items in the plan. "It was really very light, very modest, not scathing. We were very pleased about that." DESE sent their responses back on August 9th and are awaiting approval. 

Missouri LEAs had until August 23rd to submit their spending plans. Dr. Neale noted that those local funds will need an appropriation from the legislature before they can be distributed.

Introducing the Missouri Office of Childhood
The Children's Trust Fund presents the Office of Childhood
Missouri News
It's official! Doors open to the Missouri Office of Childhood 

After months of outreach and planning, the Department of Elementary and Secondary Education (DESE) officially opened the Office of Childhood this week. Watch the video and learn why this office is needed and what to expect in the years to come. You'll find cameos from Governor Mike Parson and his policy chief, Kayla Hahn, Deputy Commissioner Dr. Pam Thomas, State Senator Brian Williams, State Representative Brenda Shields, along with Emily Van Schenkhof from the Children's Trust Fund, Deidre Anderson from United Inner City Services, Craig Stevenson from Kids Win Missouri, Robin Phillips from Child Care Aware and our own Linda Rallo from Aligned.

We are grateful for the leadership of the Children's Trust Fund and especially Emily Van Schenhof for the beautiful production.

At the recent State Board of Education meeting, Dr. Pam Thomas gave an Office of Childhood (OC) update. She stated that she has 151 employees working in the office, which occupies the first floor of the Jefferson Building (DESE's home). In February, she set a personal goal of reaching one hundred stakeholder presentations before the office opened. "On July 23rd, I hit that goal. Most of the presentations were virtual, but it's been great to get that consistent message out to the field. I have also participated in 26 in-person listening sessions since that timeframe."

The OC team mapped and moved 113 web pages to create a new Office of Childhood website with thousands of links, documents, and materials around early childhood and afterschool programs. "The team found ways to streamline the information, reduce some of the redundancy, especially in childcare subsidy and licensing," said Thomas.

SBOE laments lack of adequate school transportation funding 

The State Board of Education met last month and welcomed public attendance for the first time in more than a year.

Read more from the Missouri Independent. 

Dr. Kari Monsees presented budget instructions and outlined potential new spending items for FY23, which include:
  • Foundation Formula
  • Foundation Transportation
  • Office of Childhood Adjustments
  • Early Childhood Special Education 
  • Vocational Rehabilitation Match
  • Federal Relief Funds Appropriation Authority 
  • Federal Programs Increased Appropriation Authority 
  • Market-Based Salary Adjustment Proposal
  • Various Commission Requests
Dr. Monsees does not anticipate a significant increase to the foundation formula, which the legislature has fully funded for five consecutive years. However, he added that school transportation remains about $200 million short of full funding.

State board member Vic Lenz commented, "If that transportation formula isn't funded, it has to come out of the school districts' education funding. So to say we're fully funding the formula and then taking money out of that to get the kids to school makes the false statement that we're fully funding the formula."

Dr. Monsees added that an increase in transportation funding would allow districts to be more aggressive with salaries which would help offset some of the hardships related to the school bus driver shortage.

The long, hot summer debate around Critical Race Theory

The Joint Committee on Education met twice this summer to hear "invited testimony regarding Critical Race Theory and the 1619 project". In total, the committee members listened to more than five hours of testimony and inquiries from witnesses on both sides of the debate.

You can access recordings of the hearings here.

  • The hearing on Monday, July 19, 2021 largely featured witnesses who believe public schools are teaching CRT.
  • The hearing on Monday, August 23, 2021 largely featured witnesses opposed to legislative efforts to ban certain forms of teaching, including CRT.
State Representative Doug Richey asked Michael Harris, a representative from DESE, the following question:

With regards to publically funded education, "What are we supposed to be targeting? Education from the point of producing well-educated individuals or cultural transformation. I think that's at the heart of what's creating some angst here."

Harris responded, "The ultimate goal for the K-12 system is to produce students that are ready for success, success in life, whether that be going into the workforce or going on to higher ed, or a two-year college or an apprenticeship. We are living in a time where students have access to more information than ever before. They will ask teachers cultural-type questions, and teachers will respond because that's what good teachers do. If they are injecting their beliefs one way or another, they should be dealt with locally."

Aligned expects the issue of CRT to dominate the legislative agenda next year. The tenets of CRT are not part of the Missouri Learning Standards (see the standards here). CRT and educational equity are not the same. School districts utilize efforts around diversity, equity, and inclusion (DEI) as one way to close the achievement gap.

Kansas News
Two billion to plug the "Homework Gap"

The FCC announced over $5 billion in funding requests as part of the $7.17 billion Emergency Connectivity Fund Program. Kansas schools and libraries submitted an ask for $25 million to pay for laptops and tablets, Wi-Fi hotspots, modems, routers, and broadband connections. According to a February 2021 study by the Kansas Health Institute, three in 10 Kansas lack reliable internet service.

Kansas Health Department receives $74 million for COVID testing

From the Kansas Association of School Boards:

As the Delta variant spreads, officials are urging school districts to submit requests for funds that can be used for COVID-19 testing in schools.
The Kansas Department of Health and Environment received from the federal government $74 million in ELC Grants that can be used for COVID-19 testing in pre-K through 12th grade schools.

A robust COVID-19 testing and vaccine strategy can help protect students, teachers and staff and support safe, in-person instruction, KDHE said.
"We urge school districts to use the ELC resources for additional support," said KDHE Secretary Dr. Lee Norman.

Click here for more information on school-based testing and applying for the ELC funds.

Five ways to boost real-world learning

The Kansas Chamber released "The Challenge to Compete - Kansas Workforce 2020" which shares research on how education can better align with the staffing needs of industries in their state. Among the 20 recommendations are five ways to expand work-based learning for students.

  1. Establish specific state-level goals for student work-based learning similar to Rhode Island's PrepareRI.
  2. Reform Kansas labor laws to enable youth under 18 to get more work experience.
  3. Extend school district liability coverage to provide liability protection for businesses that host young employees, interns, or offer job shadowing.
  4. Incentivize Kansas' public colleges and universities to expand student internships and job placement coordination with area firms. Establish goals for the percentage of college students placed in internships. 
  5. Create more summer externship programs for K-12 teachers, as a practical way for teachers to understand the value of student work experience and what career opportunities are available in their region.
Task force tapped to tackle graduation requirements

Kansas Education Commissioner Randy Watson established a 42-member task force to study graduation requirements and specifically identify courses that should be added or mothballed.

Current gradation requirements include four units of English, three units each of history and government, science and math, one unit each of physical education and fine arts and six units of electives.

The task force will submit their recommendations in May of 2022.

What employers want
Did you know that 52.5 million U.S. jobs demand "durable skills"?

Through our partnership with America Succeeds and Emsi/Burning GlassAligned has identified common competencies rather than diverse technical needs that will help learning and workers advance their careers.

In an era when technical skills are evolving at an unprecedented pace, there is an essential set of durable 'soft skills' that last throughout an entire career-how we use what we know (critical thinking, communication, etc.) and our character skills.

Emsi/Burning Glass studied 82 million U.S. job postings from the past two years and learned that 61% of those postings required at least one durable skill.

Durable skills fit into ten major themes or competencies: leadership, character, collaboration, communication, creativity, critical thinking, metacognition, mindfulness, growth mindset, and fortitude.

Read our reports from Missouri and Kansas and see how each state compares in the demand for durability.
Reunited and it feels so good
While the Aligned Board of Directors held its quarterly meeting over Zoom last week, our St. Louis Advisory Board met in person, and it was invigorating to have live, face-to-face exchanges. We shared our summer work and discussed plans for the upcoming session. Next week our team will meet in Kansas City for two days of visits with lawmakers and our partners. Of course, we must take caution as we venture out; however, it will be refreshing to be 'screen free' for a few days.

Stay safe out there, and stay tuned. We will preview our legislative priorities in next month's newsletter.

All the best,

Torree Pederson
(913) 484-4202

Linda Rallo
(314) 330-8442