Lawrence Public Schools extends fall break after emergency school board meeting

Change aimed at improving mental health of teachers and students after difficult year

By Kenna McNally and Addie London

Lawrence Public Schools will be closed from Nov. 22 to Nov. 28 after an emergency school board meeting this afternoon ended in a 5-2 vote in favor of extending fall break. 

The move follows Kansas City, Kan., public schools announcement on Nov. 4 that it would extend its fall break to include Nov. 22 and 23, a similar break extension was proposed by district administration, which cited strains placed on staff educating students through the pandemic. 

“I am so proud of our staff and students,” Superintendent Anthony Lewis said in a district email on Thursday announcing the special board meeting. “They have adapted to so many changes, rose to every new challenge, and have given their all during this pandemic. I know that it hasn’t been easy. We are listening to our teachers and students, and would like to be able to provide them this extended break.”

It has been a struggle all school year to find substitute teachers. Teachers frequently are being asked to cover their colleagues’ classes, and with over 120 staff members having already requested off the two days before fall break, attempting to find coverage for these positions would have been a logistical nightmare. 

“You think about those numbers and you think about our struggle to staff buildings now with substitutes,” said Lewis. “It may be a challenge on those two days as well.”

Worries going into the meeting primarily focused on childcare for elementary-aged children as there was no final alternative care available. 

School board member Carole Cadue-Blackwood cited this worry as the reason for her vote against the extended break, which might force families to scramble for childcare with less than a two-week notice.

“There is no guarantee of childcare…hope is not a strategy,” Cadue-Blackwood said.

Lewis said the district was working with community organizations to potentially provide childcare to USD 497 families. No official plans were specified.

Worries that teachers’ lesson plans could be impacted, was the main concern for the high school level. 

School board members decided the potential pitfalls of the extension were outweighed by the need to give teachers a break after how stressful the last two school years have been. 

“Teachers are tired. Teachers are stressed, no matter how much they love what they do,” said board member Melissa Johnson.

Johnson is a teacher in Kansas City, Kan., and said she felt for faculty members.

“They are exhausted,” she said.  “They need a break.”

Many students were excited to hear about the extended break after how stressful this school year has been for them as well. 

“I feel excited about it because people miss school a lot that week anyways…I really hope this helps those students reduce stress,” said senior Maddie DeWitt. “I think it will just be a good week for people to recover from school starting because that was really stressful this year. It was a really anxious start in August coming off of COVID.”

Students are also excited to be able to focus on spending time with their loved ones after many were unable to gather with family last year due to the pandemic. 

“I think it’ll be helpful to give us time to spend with our families,” said junior Mary Morris, “instead of spending [Thanksgiving] locked up in our rooms with piles of homework.”

School Counselor Jen Hare shared the sentiment that students and teachers need this extra time to catch up before finals in December.

“It [the extended break] gives students time to get caught up on all of their missing work…and they can get that homework done so it doesn’t cut into the family part of Thanksgiving,” Hare said. “I think that flexibility is key. I think that it is OK to be flexible and give kids extra time, and I think that maybe the teachers should use that time to relax as well.” 

“Thank you, Dr. Lewis,” Hare said. “Thank you, school board.”

Maxwell Cowardin, Maebelle Hamlin and Finn Lotton-Barker contributed to this report.