Dec 04, 2020 11:25 PM

COVID-19: My Story Episode 14-USD 308 Superintendent Mike Folks transcript

Posted Dec 04, 2020 11:25 PM

Nick Gosnell:

Welcome to COVID 19: My Story. I'm Nick Gosnell. The following conversation with USD 308 Superintendent Mike Folks occurred on December 2, 2020. All information is accurate as of that date.

Nick Gosnell:

Mike, the thing that we need to remind people about this is this has now spanned basically portions of two school years, because it kind of hit you guys in the spring break time or a little bit before, I guess, in USD 308. And so what happened back in February and March of 2020, I know that's a ways back, and you had a long and winding road since then, but I think that might be a good place to start our discussion.

Mike Folks:

Thinking back nine months ago, when on ... I think it was Friday, March 13th, when the Governor shut schools down, it has been an absolute whirlwind. The fastest and the most challenging nine months that I can ever remember.

Mike Folks:

When the pandemic first hit, at that point, people just really started scrambling, and coming together, and we flipped our system around in about two weeks to try to provide opportunities for students. And I think back to our control tower and our teams within USD 308, we had a health and safety team, a distance learning team, a workforce and legal team, equity and learning recovery team, cost control team, social emotional learning and mental health team, and it all fed into the control tower. And then that was just within USD 308, and I think over the span of the nine months, how many tentacles and working parts, and the amount of input and players involved with the pandemic ...

Mike Folks:

After you had shared that you wanted to do this interview, this morning, I quickly thought I would jot down some of the effects on our system here in 308, and I quickly came up with two pages of items. And I'm not sure how much time you have this morning, Nick, but I'm sure I could talk for a long time about everything that has happened not only in 308 but in Reno County and around the state of Kansas related to trying to provide an education during a pandemic.

Nick Gosnell:

Well, I'm glad you've got lengthy notes because the fun thing about podcasts is, unlike the on-air radio, we don't have a time we have to hit, so we can go as long as you've got time for, which I guess is the good thing here.

Nick Gosnell:

Now, Mike having said that, two pages, it starts really with being sure that kids and teachers and employees are as safe as can be reasonably expected from the virus while, as much as possible, still dealing with that in-person as much as possible educational model. And squaring that is awfully difficult because you've got those two competing forces that you have to deal with in every facet of what happens in a school district.

Mike Folks:

Nick, you're right on, and to complicate that, there's so many different perspectives, and there's still so much divisiveness related to the pandemic and what is really happening and what should be done.

Mike Folks:

But we are charged with this vast continuum where, number one, we need to maximize the safety of students and staff on one end of that continuum, and on the other end of that continuum, you have providing an education to our students. And then you've got all those other variables in the middle that we have tried to balance.

Mike Folks:

And I think about the input that we have tried to gather from all these different perspectives, whether it's our staff, our parents, our community, because we're a system within a system. Our medical and health community, and people from the Kansas State Department of Education and the Kansas State Board of Education, Kansas Association of School Boards. If I shared the amount of just meetings, and input, and collaboration that has gone on between staff, administrators, the board, our teachers association, Reno County superintendents and health officials, other superintendents in the area, I think I am on input overload. There is just so much input that we're taking in to try to balance and do the best we can with both ends of that continuum.

Nick Gosnell:

That really is a challenge that I don't envy you, I don't envy those that are in leadership at Hutchinson Regional Healthcare System. I don't envy anyone that has to say daily "This is safe," because we don't know. We know what is safest as of the best information we have today, and that is fluid as well, just like anything that regards science is. Not to mention this virus has been changing over and over.

Nick Gosnell:

So I guess I also want to give you the opportunity to talk a little bit about your healthcare staff, because school nurses are used to dealing with communicable diseases on a fairly regular basis, but something on this scale has got to be new to them.

Mike Folks:

Absolutely. And I want to back up to something that you mentioned. Just the support that we have had in 308 from medical professionals, Hutch Clinic, Prairie Star, the hospital here, Reno County Health, and just all of the information and recommendations and help has been tremendous. And it doesn't stop there. We've got so many people in this community that have reached out to help the school district, I would be remiss if I didn't mention that.

Mike Folks:

But within 308, yes, our nurses, our director of nursing, our health staff are very stretched. And we try to provide time to meet with them several times during the week, or at least I meet with our director of nursing. But they have done a great job.

Mike Folks:

And it's so difficult, because, as you mentioned, Nick, we pivot. We change. The amount of uncertainty. And I realize the there's a great deal of frustration because of that, but there's so much unknown, and we really didn't know about, hey, what were the transmission rates going to be like in school, and where are our kids and staff the safest? And all of those things that every week we learn more.

Mike Folks:

And back to that different perspectives and ends of the spectrum, we can say here in 308 that we don't believe that the transmission between students is very high at all. Our data would show that it's less than one percent. Even with our cases. And after quarantining and exclusions, that number is really low.

Mike Folks:

But what I can't say with as much confidence is that those students don't transmit the disease to our staff, and our staff can be spreaders. We just got this information last week, and actually Karen Hammersmith helped the Reno County superintendents, and that was based off Wichita 259 doing a study with Wichita State University on their positivity rate just within their school system. But looking at our staff alone in Reno County of the six school districts, our positive rate is 4.35%, where the community rate is 2.35. In 308, I think we came in about 4.1% of our staff being positive. Well, we can't say that, with our number being higher in 308, that transmission isn't occurring from students to staff or from staff to staff. What we know is that our numbers don't show a very high occurrence of transmission from student to student.

Mike Folks:

But then you think about all the asymptomatic student and staff. So my point there is it might be different within different groups within the system.

Nick Gosnell:

Yeah. That's obvious.

Nick Gosnell:

Now, that said, again, we've got to continue to think about there are lots of different approaches to what people think the right learning model is if infection is as rampant as it has been across the county. There are people who say, "Well, then let's just do not even hybrid learning but remote learning for everybody until we get this thing knocked down." Then there are people that say "You're not going to knock it down. We really need to have the kids in school. You just told us that it's mainly a staff problem, not a student problem, so you guys worry about your human resources, but at this point we think kids ought to be in school." And then there's everybody in between.

Nick Gosnell:

And there's literally the cases ... I use this analogy elsewhere, but really you only have so many specialty teachers, whether it's an auto shop teacher, or a physics and chemistry teacher, or a phys ed teacher, and with all due respect to your substitutes, unless they have an equal background, and maybe they're a retiree and coming back to the classroom, you lose something there. And those retirees in particular are ones that may be more at risk of more serious consequences from this virus, so that makes them more reticent to come sub. That's got to be a difficult thing, too, and I know I'm not talking to Rick Kraus. That's technically, of course, his area, but I know that that's a challenge for you as well.

Mike Folks:

Staffing issues are becoming much more prevalent as the number of positive cases, exclusions, quarantines continue to increase. That is evident. You are correct that our staff, they're spread really thin. And when we talk about what is the right learning model, if I knew the answer to that for everyone,

boy, I could bottle it and sell it for sure because if you look around the state, school districts are changing every couple of weeks. They're going from in class to hybrid to modified hybrid to full remote, or some kind of an A and B schedule, or half days. Everyone's trying to figure out and balance all those different perspectives and needs within the system.

Mike Folks:

And we've tried to do the same here, and, again, it's caused frustrations because we haven't stayed in one particular learning model long enough to really evaluate the academic effects. We do know that when we were in remote learning and with our full-time remote students, our numbers of D and F's had really increased in USD 308. The lack of engagement ...

Mike Folks:

It's so complicated. There's so many different variables from supervision to lack of internet, which we've been working on providing here in 308 to some families, to just a variety of things. And so we did a survey, we listened to staff, we listened to parents, we went to the hybrid model or the modified hybrid, and we've made tweaks and adjustments in that as well based on the long-term sustainability of it. And I've heard from parents, I've taken phone calls about how being in remote or even in modified hybrid, the strain that is put on families from having to stay home, to losing jobs, to losing their homes, the mental health challenges, and just the custodial piece that we play within the community system as a school district, to just the staff stress that's been put on the system trying to balance the modified hybrid.

Mike Folks:

And then you've got these numbers that continue to increase. And the concern that our staff have, which I understand that our numbers continue to increase. And so I don't know if there's a right or wrong answer. I think you can defend or not defend all the different learning models that are out there currently.

Nick Gosnell:

It's also important to note that learning does not just happen inside the school building between, say, 7:00 AM and 3:00 PM. Extracurricular activities, whether it be choir, or band, or speech and debate, or scholars bowl, or basketball or football, or any of the other activities that there are, they all have an impact as well. The Kansas State High School Activities Association trying to weigh the same issues that are being weighed on the local level. And I know that that's a big, heavy burden, too.

Nick Gosnell:

It just feels like that there are pressure points amongst these things. I was talking to a colleague before we got on today, Mike, about the fact that not having fans, which is the way the high school activities association is as of the time we are having this conversation on the 2nd of December. Obviously, they have an opportunity to change those things at whatever time they decide to meet. But as of when we're talking about it, it would be no fans through basically the majority of the month of January.

Nick Gosnell:

And what I said to my colleague was the problem is not the student to student transmission. At least that hasn't been the case to this point. But the problem may be student to an official transmission, and

just much like the specialty issues with the specialty teachers, if you don't have officials, you can't have a game. And so there's that part of it.

Nick Gosnell:

There's those pressure points within the larger framework that I think maybe sometimes people don't think about.

Mike Folks:

Correct. I would agree with that, Nick, and I had someone ask me just yesterday what is our purpose? What is the gating criteria, and what is our purpose? Is it to mitigate the spread within 308, or is it to mitigate this spread within Reno County? And what's the purpose of those things? And I think that aligns to the mission or the objective related to activities.

Mike Folks:

And you talk about something that's controversial, and different perspectives or philosophies. It's clearly evident again with athletics and activities. And I can tell you that those are important to our students. It helps with student engagement. It helps with mental health. It helps with that D and F list that I'm talking about. We do know that the transmission is low, but I also understand from parents and others who are questioning why those things are allowed to continue when the numbers are so high.

Mike Folks:

But I think, Nick, you hit the nail on the head with the transmission between students is relatively low, as far as the data that we have. I was concerned about the spectators several months ago, and I brought that up to our Board of Education. And we limited our spectators to 10%. And, again, I realize how hard that is. I'm a parent of a college football player, and there were several games that I didn't get to go to. They didn't allow spectators, and actually they canceled the last part of their season. But I've always believed it's more important that our students have an opportunity to be involved in extracurricular activities. Not just athletics. We're talking all extracurricular activities. And that's part of our system. That's kind of what we do.

Mike Folks:

I don't know if you know this, but I heard that KSHSAA has an appeal on the no spectators, and they have an appeal board which is separate from the board of directors that's going to meet, I believe, tomorrow. It's a nine member appeals board that's going to take this up. I think that there's people that don't realize that KSHSAA is part of a legislative statute, that local school boards can not overrule their decision without jeopardizing their standing as a KSHSAA member.

Mike Folks:

And not to spend too much time there, but I know that's controversial. But I understand why we allow kids to continue with extracurricular activities. I understand why we're trying to reduce the number or eliminate spectators to help mitigate the spread of this virus.

Nick Gosnell:

Mike, it's not that we don't have more time on a podcast, but we don't have infinite time for people to listen to us. So I guess we've really just scratched the surface of this with regard to the decisions that are

made, so I guess I'm going to freeze you in time for a second. As of the conversation we're having in the first week of December 2020, and, obviously, just like we've talked about so much throughout this conversation, everything is subject to change, especially as COVID-19 continues to impact us more and more in Reno County. But where is USD 308 in terms of learning model at the different levels, and where do they sit as of a couple of weeks before Christmas break?

Mike Folks:

Yeah, I think that's a great and really important question. And that's one that, just in the last week or two with other school districts in the area making decisions to go remote, or at least remote 7-12, that puts more pressure on us.

Mike Folks:

I shared in a video with staff and with parents that it's my goal for us to remain in ... I still call it the modified hybrid. I had a teacher tell me last night that, Mike, it's really we've gone back to the hybrid because we don't have in session schooling on Fridays. They're now remote. But we have changed what we have called our models so much, I just said, "We're going to call it modified hybrid until December 18th."

Mike Folks:

So my goal would be that we stay in the modified hybrid, but understanding that staffing issues could shut down particular classrooms, grade levels, or even buildings. And we have had that happen a couple of times.

Mike Folks:

And so, in reality, that could continue. We could see that we need to shut down a few buildings just because of staff or student absenteeism, and those kinds of things. The million dollar question is what does the future bring? With all the different input we have related to transformation and positive rates within our system, and what's the right model because I'm hearing from staff that there are so many transitions right now, either with staffing or with students in and out from remote to in class that originally, we thought the modified hybrid was a lot better than remote overall for the majority of our students. I'm not sure that's the case right now.

Mike Folks:

And so we have this new superintendent's COVID-19 advisory committee, which we have about 30 people on. We have building representation, parents, and staff, and board, and some community leaders, and we're going to talk about the learning model. And we have a meeting set up for next week to talk about that. Tomorrow night, I have a Zoom with some staff members from each building, and I'm going to do another one of those next week, and I'm going to try to get as much input as I possibly can. We have a principals meeting today. I'm going to get input from them and share with the board on December 14th what I believe is the best approach for us when we return after the 1st of January. I think January 4th is when everyone is supposed to return.

Mike Folks:

And, Nick, if I can tell you right now that if we would go full remote between now and January 4th, or between December 18th and January 4th, and we would get out of the red category, and we would

make a significant improvement or dent in our community test rate, I'd say, "Let's do it." I don't think right now across the state we're seeing that. The data does not prove that changing the model is really making that big a difference. And so it goes back to keeping students and staff safe.

Mike Folks:

I would definitely like to be able to come back whenever the date is, and say, "We're going to be in full session." I just don't know whether we're going to be able to do that or not, but that's definitely our staff's goal, and that's definitely my goal.

Nick Gosnell:

Mike, I'm going to actually push back against you, and let me be clear, my kids don't go to USD 308, so I have no dog in this fight from your particular perspective. But I will mention something that was mentioned at relative length on the high school activities association call, because I happened to watch most of that when they were making their original decision. And I'm not sure that it isn't applicable here more generally. And that is that if people do decide to travel for the Christmas and New Year's holiday, then a two week incubation period after January 1 isn't the 4th of January, it's the 15th. So is there consideration to maybe not necessarily locking yourself into a decision at the very beginning of the post-Christmas holiday, but rather giving yourself that post Christmas time to see which way the numbers go before you lock stuff in?

Mike Folks:

Absolutely. And I'm glad you pushed back there, Nick, because I want to be clear that January 4th is the scheduled return date. One of the things that I'm going to be visiting with the advisory committee about and our staff and our board is the possibility coming off our holiday break is do we start on January 18th? Do we come back in a modified hybrid, do we come back full remote to try to help mitigate the potential spread that occurred during the holiday season? I think there's a lot of merit in maybe having remote learning until January 15th or 18th.

Mike Folks:

So I would agree that we've got to give that a great deal of consideration. Another idea that I've just shared with our executive team is the possibility of doing some kind of a staggered come back after the holiday break, where you bring maybe your K-6 students back first, and the following week 6-8, and the following week 9-12. Again, I don't think there's any just this is absolutely right. I think every individual district is different, and I think that's why we have been in modified hybrid K-12 where some of our neighbors have done things differently. Our district is configured different. Our demographics are different, and we're trying to hit the bulls-eye.

Mike Folks:

And again, I realize we're not making any particular group real happy, but we're trying to balance and do the best we can to give something to each one of those different perspectives.

Nick Gosnell:

We've been talking to USD 308 superintendent Mike folks on this edition of COVID-19: My Story. And I guess maybe the takeaway here is that the story is not yet finished in at USD 308, and going beyond.

Nick Gosnell:

Thanks for listening to COVID-19: My Story. If you have a story for the COVID-19: My Story podcast, feel free to email us at hutchpo