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After the pandemic shutdowns’ social isolation, kids returning to class have had “more weapons, more fights, a lot more mental health cases to deal with.”

Twitter/hoganprepkc

Kansas City’s Hogan Preparatory Academy charter high school, temporarily closed for safety reasons, must return its students safely back into the classroom — and soon.

The school shut down a week ago because of “multiple recent incidents affecting the safety of students and staff,” according to a letter of concern issued by the Missouri Charter Public School Commission.

The longer children are out of school, the further behind they’re likely to fall academically, and the harder it will be to readjust to an in-classroom environment after two years of remote learning because of the coronavirus pandemic.

When students returned to classrooms this fall, schools expected many would need intense remediation to overcome the learning loss that occurred during shutdowns.

COVID-19 is still with us, though far less threatening. But now, according to Hogan, it is unmanageable students who are making schools unsafe — that, and a shortage of staff to control or prevent disruptions.

Some parents and others who were a part of the “reopen our schools” chorus got a lot of pushback during the pandemic because the virus’s spread had not yet subsided. But they did warn that long-time school closures would present emotional and mental distress for children. They were right.

The return to schools has come with a rise in student fights, weapon possession and other disruptions. Helping students relearn how to be in school and staffing is key. And that’s a big part of the problem, because the country is in the midst of a national school staff shortage. Teachers, counselors and administrators have left the profession in droves over the last two years.

One recent study by professors from Kansas State University and the University of Illinois Urbana-Champaign counted at least 36,500 teacher vacancies in the nation. The study also estimated there are at least 163,500 positions filled by teachers who aren’t fully certified, or aren’t certified in the subject area they are teaching.

Hogan Prep’s 450 students in grades 9-12 are now back to attending class remotely by computer after the new closure. That is not a good thing. As we learned during the pandemic, even if every student has an electronic device, students don’t all have consistent internet access. Nearly all of Hogan’s student population comes from economically disadvantaged households.

If social isolation during the pandemic is behind the emotional damage and bad behavior playing out at school, sending kids back into isolation surely does not fix the problem. At best, it’s a temporary reset.

“Is the solution to shut school down? No, because that’s part of what got us where we are now,” said Mo Canady, executive director of the National Association of School Resource Officers.

“No one needed a crystal ball to know that we were going to have a problem when we opened the doors back up and let kids back into schools,” Canady said. The problems in urban, rural and suburban schools are “more weapons, more fights, a lot more mental health cases to deal with,” he said.

‘High rates’ of suspensions after school fights

It’s not happening in Kansas City alone, either. Several schools in St. Louis recently closed temporarily because of persistent fighting and threats of violence. And teachers and school administrators across the country say they are seeing a rise in everything from minor misbehavior to fighting in the hallways, The Washington Post reported last month.

School fights are not unusual. What happened at Hogan led to what the letter called “high rates” of suspensions. Neither the school nor the commission is elaborating. But it was clearly scary enough that lots of school staffers “are considering resigning or not renewing employment contracts because of the concerns for their safety,” the commission’s letter said. Extra security has been assigned to Hogan’s middle school and school leaders said they’ve “altered procedures during the school day to emphasize safety.” Those details are kept secret for security reasons.

“I think it is disappointing that this is happening, but I do think that based on what I’ve heard, the decision that was made to close is what had to happen to keep students safe,” Douglas Thaman, executive director of the Missouri Charter Public School Association, told us.

And that underscores the dilemma facing Hogan and schools like it: Students aren’t safe in school but might not be learning remotely.

We know that online education is not the best setup for teaching students, particularly for those with learning challenges. Recent national academic outcome reports from the pandemic years showed a lot of children, including kids in Missouri and Kansas, fell significantly behind academically in virtual schooling.

So shutting the doors and expecting kids to show up in front of a computer screen rather than in a traditional classroom is sure to set students even further back academically.

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Hogan was ordered by the commission to come up with a safety plan before it can reopen after the Thanksgiving holiday. The commission received the plan Saturday, but if the commission is not certain students can safely return, Hogan could close indefinitely.

Sadly, that could further disrupt the education of children whose lives have already been disturbed by pandemic isolation and threats of violence at school. They deserve better. Hogan must quickly find a workable solution. Failing would leave hundreds of Kansas City students behind.

Failure is not an option.

This story was originally published November 22, 2022 12:31 PM.

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