Animals are back! School guidelines issued in 1997 about using animals in Kansas schools have been revised. Neither the older out-of-date guidelines nor the new up-to-date guidelines are statutes (laws) or regulations. They are guidelines, professional suggestions for appropriate use. There is no required inspection or threat of fines. Despite guidelines not having any force of law, some Kansas schools removed all classroom gerbils, mice, tame rats, fish aquaria, and prohibited students from bringing pets due to the older guidelines that appeared restrictive.
Incubating fertile eggs and letting elementary students watch hatching is a wonderful activity that helps them understand reproduction. And what child would not be excited holding cute baby chicks!
A tiny adult ringnecked snake, smaller than most earthworms, will try to nose its way between a child’s fingers and elicits giggles, not fear. And for the older student who has developed a superficial fear of snakes from hearing relatives talk in fear, the only technique that ends that fear is not photos or videos, not classroom discussion or teacher claims, nor anything else digital. The student that sees other students holding a tame king snake without harm can hold out their trembling hands and ask to hold it too. And only when the teacher hands those coils into the students hands does the trembling stop, as a whole new confidence and understanding comes from this quiet interaction.
Rural students living on farms do not need to be educated about their sheep and goats and calves and ponies. And yes, it comes with that “mud” on your boots. That hands-on understanding of animals and their role with humans, our need to treat them humanely and without cruelty, and our understanding of the extent and limitations of animal behavior is an understanding that should not be limited to our shrinking population of farm kids.
The new guidelines are divided into general and animal-specific recommendations. Some of the general guidelines could have been crafted by your mom. Wash your hands after handling animals, and do the hand-washing correctly. Don’t wash the aquarium water down the sink you use to prepare food, etc. Much in the guidelines is common sense; but what we call common sense used to be based on childhood experiences that are now disappearing. That is why we need animals back in classrooms more than ever—to re-establish common sense.
The one restriction found throughout the new guidelines is limiting animal exposure for children under five years of age. Teachers also need to let parents know of their classroom animals so that students with particular allergies can be kept distant.
Across Kansas, there are many exciting classrooms at elementary and secondary level where gerbils play on exercise wheels, parakeets squawk to greets students as the come in, and terrariums and aquaria are like small televisions for students during classroom breaks. But some classroom animals have disappeared, in many cases due to the emphasis on teaching for the tests.
But this year is a new year with new animal guidelines. And for some students, the only way to get their heads out of those smartphones may be to let them hold some cute, fuzzy animals.