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State budget cuts, public health concerns and lack of student access to food and computers needed for online classes have faced the Kuna School District this semester. Now, administrators are looking back on how they did and looking forward toward what’s to come.

By the numbers

As the school year closes, the district has been surveying parents to see “what we’ve done right and wrong,” said Superintendent Wendy Johnson.

Over 2,000 parents weighed in on what distance learning has looked like in their homes. One of the most consistent challenges they experienced was with helping their child focus in online classes; 88% of students used computers to learn at home this spring, and 67% of them struggled to focus in their new learning environment, parents reported. To make things more difficult, over half of students needed help from their parents or siblings to complete their normal class work.

“As teachers, we have that problem too, but we have a lot more strategies to pull out of our hats” to get students focused, Johnson said.

This has been especially challenging in elementary education, where homework is usually used to reinforce concepts that students were already taught in the classroom. High schoolers and middle schoolers seem to have adapted more easily, Johnson said, but finding ways to teach the district’s youngest students has been difficult.

Some families didn’t access learning materials at all — be them online classes or paper workbooks — because the pandemic put too much stress on families to complete schoolwork, the survey said.

A blended approach

It’s unclear what the 2020-2021 school year will look like in Kuna, and officials are still in the early stages of planning for a return to in-person classes in the fall. Assuming school doors are able to reopen, though, administrators are keeping in mind that 25% of parents are unsure whether they’ll be comfortable sending their children back to classes, and 4% are generally uncomfortable with the idea.

In response, the district is considering a number of possibilities, a “blended approach” among them. This mixed model could see students in classrooms some of the time and taking classes online the rest of the time. Other possibilities include having concerned families sending their students to school virtually through Zoom while other students are physically in class. Another would be splitting classes in half so that one half of the class would attend one day, and the other half the opposite day, said district spokeswoman Allison Westfall.

All these ideas are just being floated right now, though. The district is organizing a video conference with parents to help guide action moving forward.

The school board decided earlier this month to move the final day of classes from May 29 to May 22. During this extra week, teachers and administrators will work full-time to plan for next year and respond to challenges parents and students have been facing. A special focus is being placed on developing online activities for elementary school students that can introduce new concepts.

Up in the air

In late May, parents would usually know class lists, who will teach their kids and if they seek out the information, what the district’s budget is likely to look like for the coming year. In the face of recent state education budget cuts and other pandemic-related complications, that’s all still up in the air. In bracing for budget cuts, the district already furloughed 145 employees, but more action will have to be taken.

“We’re in the process of reviewing every recommendation,” Johnson said. “We’re trying to balance what the budget reductions look like versus what it’s going to take to have school next year. I think we’re still wrestling with that answer, trying not to make decisions that will have a negative long-term effect on kids. … I would say every person in our system has a role in educating a child, and about 88% of our budget is people. It’s challenging to come up with a 5% reduction.”

The Kuna school board has the final say on the district’s budget, but their decision has been pushed from mid-June to June 30. While a detailed draft of the budget would usually be established by now, administrators are still determining how to further cut spending for next year.

Johnson has looked back to how she responded to the Great Recession when she was the assistant superintendent in 2008, but she’s found that most of the cost-saving changes that were made then are still in place. At the time, fees for extracurricular activities were imposed, school budgets were reduced and supplemental levies became a staple of education funding throughout the state. But all of these measures are still in place, forcing administrators to find new ways to make up for lost funding.

Next steps

In hopes of honoring the class of 2020, Initial Point High School will hold a virtual graduation ceremony at 7 p.m. May 20 on Facebook. Kuna High School’s will be at the same time the following day, May 21 on Facebook.

Kuna High also marked July 2 on its calendar for an in-person ceremony at the Idaho Center. After watching the community’s health and following CDC guidelines, the district will decide in mid-June whether a physical ceremony can be celebrated safely.

Like the district’s planning for graduation and for the coming academic year, its free meal program will continue to throughout the summer. Should a blended approach be adopted, the district hopes to continue feeding students while they’re learning at home. However, federal decisions on school lunch funding will determine if and when meals will be available to students staying at home next fall.

Blake Jones is the reporter for Kuna Melba News. You can reach him at bjones@idahopress.com and stop by during his office hours, Wed. 11 a.m.-2 p.m. and Thu. 9 a.m.-12 p.m., at our Kuna newsroom, 326 Avenue D. Call ahead at 208-922-3008.

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