USD 497 parents push for return to expanded in-person learning amid COVID-19 pandemic


Ben Cohen

Link Crew member Kirk Johnson (right) helps a student find their way through the building on Thursday, Oct. 29. Link Crew members served as first day guides as new students attended in-person classes for the first time.

By Zora Lotton-Barker and Nadia Sanburn

A push to extend hybrid learning dominated public comments at the USD 497 school board meeting on Monday.

The board voted to return to a hybrid model in late September and the transition to hybrid is currently underway. As of now, students with internet issues and freshmen who opted for the hybrid option are back in the classroom one day out of the week, based on last name. The elementary school hybrid transition was delayed to early November, excluding New York and Woodlawn elementaries, to match up with the end of the trimester.

The discussion could be a glimpse of future talks as the district weighs the possibility of furthering in-person learning following Douglas County’s shift last week to the green zone. On Thursday afternoon, however, the county moved back into the yellow zone.

“In phase green, Douglas County schools reopening guidance allows for in-person considerations with mitigation strategies in place, and those incluse masks, distancing, hand-hygiene and robust operating policies,” Superintendent Anthony Lewis said at Monday’s meeting. “Phase green recommendations include small groups, no more than 17, cohorting, limited movements, teachers travelling in cohorts, holding classes in large on-site areas such as gyms, and empty classrooms if split between remote and in-person, holding classes and working with the community to identify off-site locations.”

Thus far, hundreds of USD 497 families are choosing to stay remote even with the hybrid option. Only about 40 percent of Lawrence High students are returning for hybrid learning and athletes are being encouraged to stay home.

During public comments, supporters of expanding in-person learning dominated the discussion.

Parent Marcy Owens was one of eight people who urged the board to move away from what she called “iPad school.”

“Although I don’t consider myself an expert, I do understand that important skills are not being addressed through iPad school,” said Owens, a former teacher. “You should know I didn’t call it kindergarten because iPad school is not equivalent to actual kindergarten. We are using our fingertip to write and form letters and we’re forming them incorrectly because we are not enforcing the basic skills of holding pencils because there is not a teacher walking around assessing his progress in a classroom among peers.”

School board president Kelly Jones earlier in the meeting had congratulated the success seen during the first week of hybrid learning across the district.

“I wanted to first recognize that I have heard extremely positive and enthusiastic reports from students that are in person at all levels,” Jones said. “So, I have heard from high school students, middle school students today, a sixth grader who was really delightful from Billy Mills, and our elementary students. I am excited to see more students get that opportunity to move into our buildings in-person. I want to extend an extreme amount of gratitude to district administrators, our educators, our teachers, social workers and classified staff who are working to make that happen in the midst of a pandemic.”

Concerns remain around the transition. LHS para Paul Brecht was the only speaker to advocate for caution when returning to full in-person schooling. Escalating cases of COVID-19 throughout the nation and Kansas, he said, should serve as a warning.

“The solution to the problem cannot be to keep heaping more responsibilities onto our employees,” Brecht said. “There is a shortage of educators. The fact is, if you don’t have enough hands to cover the work, important things will be missed. Because the enemy is unseen, the things that tend to go out the window first are things like health and safety practices. It happens in every industry, and we can’t rely on humans being perfect under duress, especially when we have not been given proper training and sanitary practices. This is a nightmare scenario.”

Parent Adam Didde criticised the board for not moving faster to implement in-person learning.

“The Lawrence community is safer when our schools are fully in-person,” Didde said. “Something is standing in the way of our return to in-person in this district and it’s not COVID-19. The time for this school board to take decisive action is long overdue. Our community is safer with in-person learning. Under the current learning model, the children of Lawrence are in imminent danger and they are suffering. It’s the mental, physical and emotional toll that’s being taken.”

Katie Risley accused the school board of living in fear of the Lawrence Teachers Association, or LEA.

“It is sad to see a school board that is too afraid to stand up to a teachers union, and to get our kids back to an education they so much deserve,” Risley said. “Do right by Lawrence and USD 497 and get our kids back in school. One hundred percent back in school. And do not burn the teachers out with your half thought out hybrid plan. The parents who are speaking up for learning in person won’t be quieted or shut down. We are here to fight for our kids.”

Lewis explained that the school district would not move to fully in-person learning until it was state mandated.

“As all of our Together Again plans state, our schools will not be able to return to 100 percent in person — that’s everybody back, even our distance learning students — until distancing and gathering limitations are lifted during the phase out of the Kansas governor’s reopening plan, which the county health department has also adopted,” Lewis said.

Board members are scheduled to discuss reopening criteria at their November meeting.

Owen Musser and Asher Wolfe contributed to this report.

This story was updated at 3:52 p.m. Oct. 29 to include new information about the reopening status with the county health department.