School board votes to move ahead with hybrid learning


Superintendent Dr. Anthony Lewis passionately argues on why the district should move ahead with hybrid learning. The school board approved the motion with a 4-3 vote.

Students will head back to Lawrence schools on Oct. 19 for the first time in seven months after the USD 497 Board of Education voted late Monday night to move ahead with hybrid learning. 

Under the plan, students will be split into two groups to avoid crowding the building during the coronavirus pandemic. These groups, generally divided by last name, will alternate between in-person and remote learning. Group A will attend in-person learning on Mondays and Thursdays while Group B will attend on Tuesdays and Fridays. Both groups will attend remote learning on Wednesdays. Because high school students would move to a block schedule for hybrid learning, they would see each of their teachers in person once a week.

“We are here to make sure all students are achieving to their highest potential,” board member Erica Hill said. “Not just students who do well in remote, not just the parents who know to contact the board.”

The narrow 4-3 vote came as tensions flared near the end of a seven-hour marathon meeting.

For a while, board members appeared poised to delay or step cautiously into hybrid learning. Then, a clearly frustrated Superintendent Anthony Lewis exchanged fiery words with board members who had suggested continuing discussions to another meeting.

“I am floored, totally floored,” he said. “My team has been working their tails off and to ask them to go back and come back with another plan, our kids can’t wait. I have kids that are getting involved with detrimental activities because they’re not in school. We as adults are not making decisions with the best interest of students in mind.”

Board president Kelly Jones provided the key vote to move students back to school after Lewis’ comments while also expressing her fears.

“I want to support a superintendent who is super talented and who I trust very much,” she said. “I am terrified in doing that because of the emails and things we have gotten and the number of people I talked to this weekend that we might get this wrong.”

The Lawrence Douglas County Public Health Department’s current reopening guidance of yellow allows for hybrid instruction. The county’s 14-day test positive rate is 7.7 percent, and the county has 530 active cases — with 109 added since Friday, according to the latest report.

Yet, some board members concerned about the virus worried that too little data was involved in the conversation. 

“I did ask for additional data from the health department when the board was asked to submit questions so that I could better understand the trends and where we are and where we are headed,” board member Shannon Kimball said. “The 14 day average charts don’t really tell us what to expect. None of those questions of date were answered by the health department.”

In the past seven days, Kimball noted that the county has exceeded 210 new cases per 10,000 residents.

“What most people are reporting is that you should have less than 150 new cases within those seven days,” she said.”We are far above that metric.”

Pushing back against reopening was Lawrence Education Association president Lindsey Buck. And some board members worried about conditions that teachers would have to endure in a hybrid setting and questioned if it was the right solution for most students.

“Instead of the chaos and upheaval that a new hybrid schedule will inevitably bring, we strongly believe that our scholars, teachers, families and community are better served by us working together to address the flaws identified in our current model of learning,” said the LEA’s official position.

Students who choose to do so will be allowed to stay fully remote, but it was unclear how the schedules of high school students who remain remote might be impacted.

“I would prefer full at-home learning because we’re still high risk and don’t have things under control and fortunately my daughter does well learning from home,” LHS parent Stacia Wohlford said in an interview before the meeting.

Senior Anis Abughalia said he would prefer staying at home.

“Online can be difficult at times, having to sit down in front of your computer for hours on end can leave you feeling exhausted,” he said. “With hybrid however, learning presents safety concerns. Relying on students to keep their masks on and to stay distant is not exactly realistic.”

While learning in Lawrence has been online since Sept. 9, the district has offered sports since this summer and has worked through the challenge of quarantines. Other districts have already offered hybrid learning, including Eudora and Baldwin. Blue Valley School District will move to a hybrid model on Oct. 5. 

Some school districts have had issues with the hybrid learning model. Baldwin City School District on Monday reported several new cases within schools, stretching their staff thin.

If we lose very many more staff members, we may have to shutdown a class, or a school or possibly the district,” Baldwin City School District said on its website. 

For some USD 497 school board members, the risk of returning to school was worth confronting. 

“We can’t really lead with fear,” Hill said. “We have a district that has put in an incredible amount of work. I don’t know if hybrid is the right choice. I do know that remote is not the right choice. So given the choice, I would choose hybrid over remote.”