Ahead of the Kansas Department of Education’s anticipated guidelines for reopening schools, the Manhattan-Ogden school district is working on the aspects it can address in the meanwhile, administrators told the school board Wednesday.
Superintendent Marvin Wade said district officials and educators are finalizing a first draft of the plan to bring to the board at its next meeting July 15, the day before the state department is expected to release its official guidelines. The state guidelines will allow for latitude at the local level, Wade said, and the district would likely present a final draft of the reopening plan to the board on Aug. 5, a week ahead of the first day of school on Aug. 12.
“I know a lot of people are speculating about, ‘Will there be school?’” Wade said. “All of the things we’re planning, there will be school in one form or another, and we’re going to be ready for a couple of different options. No, it will not be perfect for everybody, but we’re going to get it as close as we can get it with the planning that we’re doing.”
Wade said the district’s four reopening teams — communications and coordination, facilities and safety, budget and support, and instruction and technology — have developed some parts of their plans based on available information, guidelines and health restrictions.
Facilities and safety
Matt Davis, director of facilities, said the district is installing hand sanitizer stations on stands or walls by classroom doors. The district also has purchased gallon-size jugs of hand sanitizer to refill smaller dispensers. In bathrooms and other handwashing areas, the district is installing hands-free soap and paper towel dispensers, and district leaders are working on exact plans on how often students will be required to wash, Davis said.
Travel in and out of buildings will be highly restricted, and no visitors will be allowed to schools unless they absolutely have to be there, he said. Similarly, schools will not hold field trips, presentations or assemblies until further notice, and student teachers will need to follow the same protocols as district staffers.
The district will keep temperature-taking responsibility with individual families and employees, Davis said. Anyone with a fever will need to stay home. Davis’ team briefly discussed having bus drivers take student temperatures, but the district would likely run into issues if a student’s temperature was high but their parents already had left home for work.
Since the start of the pandemic, district crews have ramped up their cleaning procedures, using electrostatic sprayers to disinfect entire buildings.
Davis said workers will disinfect buses using the sprayers once a week on a rotation, but that enhanced cleaning procedure will be used alongside a spray bottle chemical cleaner between each bus route.
In the schools, students will need to use disinfectant wipes on shared surfaces such as keyboards. The district purchased plexiglass shields as a barrier for staffers in school offices and lunch rooms, and in the nurse’s office, all students and adults will be required to wear a mask at all times. The district is working with Ascension Via Christi Hospital on obtaining fitted N95 masks for nurses.
Davis said his team is still putting together a plan for general student and teacher mask policies, but students on buses will need to wear masks. Drivers and bus monitors will only need to wear them while loading and unloading, he said, since some drivers with glasses could see fog issues on their lenses.
Budget and support
Assistant superintendent Eric Reid said the district’s budget team has been working on finding money for some of the unanticipated COVID-19 expenses, such as the additional cleaning supplies and hand sanitizer.
Reid said the district was able to get an extra $144,000 in federal CARES Act aid for special education. To date, the district has spent $550,000 in other CARES Act general COVID-19 expenditures, he said.
Reid said he’s met with leaders from the local chapter of the Kansas National Education Association teachers’ union to discuss how to tackle some of the new teaching responsibilities under COVID-19. Those include issues like learning to teach online, or supervising students when lunch has to be in classrooms. He said the group has not only pointed out potential issues but also worked with district administrators to try to find solutions.
The district is also working on putting out a map of its student wireless internet spots town. Late last month, the school board approved a purchase request to buy internet infrastructure devices to put on the outside of school buildings and on buses in high-need neighborhoods to allow students to connect to free internet from their homes or the school parking lots.
Reid said he’s working with city, county and library officials to potentially implement a citywide free public wifi option, or at least identify public entities that offer public wifi.
Andrea Tiede, executive director of special services, said all schools and classrooms will use the Canvas education software, to provide consistency between classrooms and within families with children in multiple schools. Part of that effort will include teaching students, parents and teachers on how to use the platform. However, Tiede said over 500 teachers have volunteered to be team leads at their school to teach their peers how to effectively use the technology.
Mike Ribble, director of technology, said his team is working on collecting stray devices lent out to students and preparing those and newly purchased iPads ahead of the district’s plan to put an iPad in the hands of every student in the fall.
Wade said he recognized Wednesday’s details still leave a lot of unanswered questions about the fall.
“These are the areas that decisions have been made about that we’re comfortable saying, ‘This is where we land as a district on these positions,’” he said.
“There’s probably a lot of areas out there, people at home probably have their checklist of things they were listening for that didn’t get covered.
“We acknowledge that, and the reason is probably that those are difficult decisions that still need to be made, or we may be waiting on direction from somewhere else.”
An alligator spotted near Wildcat Creek Wednesday evening is not the missing gator from Manhattan Reptile World, officials said.
Deb Watkins, director of the T. Russell Reitz Animal Shelter, which oversees animal control, said someone reported the alligator to the store Wednesday evening, but the owners said it wasn’t theirs as it was too small. Someone then notified animal control. The missing alligator should be about 5 feet long, whereas the one recently seen at the creek is about 3 feet long.
Someone stole two American alligators from the store in early June. One was spotted along Wildcat Creek shortly after, but it eluded capture for about a week until it ultimately got caught in a trap that fell into the water, causing the creature to drown.
Store owners said they believed someone tampered with the trap as it was secured to a tree, and they had problems with people interfering with capture attempts earlier. The second alligator has not been seen at all since being reported stolen.
Animal control officers contacted the Kansas Department of Wildlife and Parks to help determine how to capture it if needed.
“Sometimes people illegally capture or buy alligators when they’re small, thinking they would make a good pet,” Watkins said.
“This could be one of those cases. Anyone who owns an alligator is required to have a state license and large alligators require a pet store license.”
Manhattan Parks and Recreation officials said people should exercise caution on Linear Trail between South Manhattan Avenue and Pecan Circle along Wildcat Creek but the area has not been blocked off.
The Manhattan Fire Department is encouraging residents to safely shoot and dispose of fireworks for the Fourth of July.
Improper disposal has caused several fires in recent years in Manhattan, officials said.
Manhattan allows fireworks to be discharged from 8 a.m. to midnight through July 4, but they cannot be lit in streets, alleys, parks or on public property or shot in the direction of people and vehicles. Residents cannot light aerial luminaries (sky lanterns), bottle rockets and M80s.
“Only discharge fireworks on private property where you have the permission of the owner ... ,” said Ryan Courtright, assistant chief of risk reduction. “Please be respectful to those that live around you and follow ordinances and safe practices.”
Kansas Department of Health and Environment Secretary Lee Norman said people who plan on attending gatherings should remember to keep at least a 6-foot distance from others who are not in the same household and wear face masks.
“If choosing to go to any events or gatherings, please be vigilant with the safety of yourself and your family,” Norman said. “Now is not the time to relax our guard — wear the face mask, practice social distancing — you own your own preparedness.”
In addition, officials said to keep the following tips in mind before using fireworks:
Several of the new coronavirus cases in Riley County are tied to bars, said Julie Gibbs, director of the Riley County Health Department and local health officer.
Gibbs on Wednesday talked about how positive cases continue to be linked to bars, live performances at bars as well as receptions, parties and house parties.
“We’re watching that, and we continue to watch that through this whole process,” Gibbs said.
Riley County has 261 total cases of the coronavirus Thursday, officials said. This is an increase of 19 cases since Wednesday.
Of the 261 cases, 145 are active, 113 are recovered and three people have died after testing positive for the coronavirus. Six more people have recovered.
There is one positive patient on a ventilator at Ascension Via Christi hospital in Manhattan.
Gibbs said Wednesday afternoon there were no new confirmed cases on the staff of Riley County EMS.
Officials said the Kansas Department of Health and Environment (KDHE) continues to communicate with the health department on that issue. There have been eight confirmed cases on the EMS staff; normally, five or more cases in a single place constitutes an outbreak. So far, KDHE has not declared the EMS staff an outbreak.
KDHE reported 14,990 cases, 1,195 hospitalizations and 272 deaths statewide Wednesday. That is up 547 cases, 43 hospitalizations and two deaths from Monday.
KDHE releases data Mondays, Wednesdays and Fridays.
Pottawatomie County has 74 cases and Geary County has 70 cases, as of Wednesday, according to KDHE. That is up six cases in Pottawatomie County and 13 cases in Geary County from Monday.
After K-State announced its 11-step action plan to address racism and discrimination on campus, top university leaders acknowledged that the tension goes back beyond a student tweet that erupted the campus community.
Speaking with The Mercury on Wednesday afternoon, vice president for student life Thomas Lane, chief diversity and inclusion officer Bryan Samuel and associate vice president for student life Adrian Rodriguez said they recognized the recent furor over Jaden McNeil’s tweet, which joked about George Floyd’s death a month prior, also embodies some students’ frustrations with other aspects of campus life.
“I think it goes beyond one tweet,” Lane said. “We’ve been hearing the voices of students who feel like they haven’t been heard, who feel unsafe and have given us, through their voices, the opportunity to make some positive change and offer some care as an institution.”
Lane said the previous week of unrest is also likely the result of national tensions and protests on race, particularly the Black Lives Matter movement that has called for racial equality and the end of police brutality. All of that, combined with the pandemic, led to student frustrations boiling over, he said.
In the hours since the university had announced its plan, the administrators said they’d seen some feedback.
Lane said he recognized some students may not be satisfied with the plan, which explicitly mentioned K-State’s legal inability to expel McNeil. But on other aspects of the plan, Rodriguez said the outlined steps are the first in laying the groundwork for more decisions, policies and action on discrimination and racism on campus.
“It’s going to take the entire community at large, including students, faculty and staff all coming together to really breathe life into what this equity agenda and plan will look like going forward,” Rodriguez said. “But I think folks and individuals are happy to see these individual steps put down on paper, but really, the great work is yet to come.”
The trio of administrators said they were disturbed that some students feel unsafe on campus, but they were confident that K-State’s recent responses would be reassuring to students and parents looking to head to campus in the fall.
“Students want to know that they’re physically and psychologically safe, and that they can engage in all the opportunities, programs and educational departments and things of that nature and not have to worry about these things,” Samuel said.
K-State’s next steps will be to implement some of its action steps as soon as possible, Lane said, pointing to adding a student ombudsperson on campus climate concerns as an immediate priority for the university.
While the university’s plan, as announced on Wednesday, did not specifically address K-State athletes’ demands for a policy that would allow a student to be dismissed for “displaying openly racist, threatening or disrespectful actions toward a student or group of students,” Lane said one of the steps will look at university policies to specifically see how they impact marginalized students.
“You know, one of the tensions I think we will run into in the planning process is how do we make sure that we are adhering to our public obligations, as a state institution, to uphold First Amendment responsibilities while also balancing and paying just as much attention to the concerns of those students who are impacted by speech that is racist, hurtful, painful, discriminatory, bigoted,” he said. “That would be the challenging premise — how do we get that balance right?”
Part of the university’s plan involves creating a social media policy for students that will outline expectations while still respecting freedom of speech rights.
Officials said they’re looking at examples of such policies at other universities across the nation, including the University of New Hampshire, which has been commended by the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education — an institute that advocates for freedom of speech on college campuses — for still upholding freedom of speech rights with the policy. Lane said that it’s not just students, but the nation as a whole, that has a lot of work to do to learn about what constitutional civic rights are.
But along with educating students about the First Amendment, Lane said K-State must teach them how to care for those who are affected by offensive speech.
“Speech is certainly free, but there are certainly a few groups that pay a higher cost for that free speech,” he said. “That’s what we need to pay attention to.”