Lawrence educators protest school district’s plan to move to hybrid in-person learning later this month

photo by: Dylan Lysen/Lawrence Journal-World

Educators of the Lawrence school district protest through a "teach-in" outside of the district offices on Monday, Oct. 5, 2020. The teachers and paraeducators said they don't support the district's plan to return to in-person learning later this month.

Story updated at 5:22 p.m. Oct. 5, 2020:

Many educators convened Monday for a protest against the Lawrence school district’s plans to return to in-person instruction later this month as the coronavirus pandemic continues.

Approximately 40 members of the local teacher and paraeducator unions conducted what they called a remote learning “teach-in” outside the Lawrence school district’s administrative offices at 110 McDonald Drive. The event aimed to show the administration that the district’s educators are not comfortable returning to in-person teaching later this month, said Amanda Painter-Ingham, a special education teacher at Pinckney Elementary School.

“Until we have a way to safely return to schools, we are putting ourselves, our families, our students, their families and our whole community at risk,” she said. “I absolutely do not believe it’s been fully thought out or completed,” she added, referring to the district’s plan to return to school buildings.

On Monday afternoon, Lawrence Superintendent Anthony Lewis said in an email to the Journal-World that he respects the rights of employees to protest and understands they have concerns about safety. He said the district always keeps student and staff safety at the forefront in its planning. But Lewis said he’s also hearing from other teachers, staff members and parents who are excited to have children return to school.

“The best model of education is to have our scholars in front of our teachers on a full-time basis,” Lewis said. “We understand that we are in a pandemic and must consider the data and science around the spread of COVID-19 in our community. Our hybrid learning plan is a start.”

He noted the district’s plans are based on Lawrence-Douglas County Public Health’s education guidance, which currently calls for county schools to use a hybrid learning model. He said the district will also continue to communicate with teachers and staff and consider their input when making decisions.

“We feel confident that our plans mitigate risk and will support a safe return to school,” he said.

Last week, the Lawrence school board approved a plan to move to a hybrid learning option on Oct. 19, which is when the district’s initial six-week period of fully remote learning is scheduled to conclude. When Lawrence students return to classrooms, they will use an “AB/AB” hybrid plan, which separates students into two groups that attend in-person classes every other day, interchangeably. When students are not learning in person, they will take their classes remotely. Additionally, on Wednesdays, the plan calls for all students to learn remotely.

Before the board approved the plan, leaders of both unions asked the board members to extend the fully remote learning period through winter break.

Despite teachers’ concerns, the board narrowly voted, 4-3, to return to in-person instruction, the Journal-World reported. Board members Kelly Jones, Erica Hill, Melissa Johnson and Paula Smith voted to approve the plan, saying they believed fully remote learning was hurting the district’s most vulnerable students.

Meanwhile, board member G.R. Gordon-Ross said he would not support the plan because he thought the district should still get “buy in” from teachers.

However, for that to happen, a significant number of teachers would need to change their stance. Lindsay Buck, president of the teachers union, said a union survey found 70% of the union’s members believe fully remote learning is the safest mode of instruction and the one they feel most comfortable using.

As a parent of children with special needs, Painter-Ingham said she understands that students in special education are struggling during remote learning. She said she believes the district should prioritize providing in-person learning to students who are “slipping through the cracks,” while others remain remote. She also said not all special education students would do better in person, and that some would struggle with the requirements of in-person learning, such as wearing a mask during the school day.

Tresa McAlhaney, a substitute teacher and parent of four students in the district, said she was protesting because she believed the plan would cause more problems than it would solve. She also said she chose to take a hiatus from substitute teaching to avoid in-person learning.

“It’s not a great solution to our current needs,” she said. Instead, she said the district should prioritize in-person learning for vulnerable students rather than allowing everyone to return: “That seems like a smarter use of our resources and staff.”

Additionally, the paraeducators union voiced concerns about students riding school buses. While the district plans to take temperatures of faculty and students when they arrive at their school buildings, the union said in a news release that many students will have already been on a bus with others before they are checked, putting those students and the district’s bus drivers at risk before the schools even know whether anyone is running a fever.

“No one is taking students’ temperatures before they board the bus,” said Mary Lee, treasurer of the paraeducators union. “If they arrive at school with a fever, even if they’re immediately isolated, they’ve already been in close contact with other students.”

Hannah Allison, chair of the paraeducators union, told the Associated Press the group wants to extend and improve remote learning and not go to a hybrid model because the workload is “so much that we wouldn’t be able to do it and we wouldn’t be able to care for our own children at home.”

The group is again asking to extend remote learning so the district and the educators have time to develop a plan to go back to school safely, she said.

“We — as paraeducators and teachers and students and parents — we believe that the people closest to the problem are closest to the solution and so we should be a part of crafting a plan for what it looks like to return to in-person,” Allison said.

— The Associated Press contributed to this report.

Related coverage:

• Sept. 20, 2020 — Parents say the Lawrence school district is failing to meet special education needs during remote learning

• Sept. 26, 2020 — After heated discussion, Lawrence school board narrowly approves moving to hybrid learning model in October

• Sept. 30, 2020 — Baldwin City teacher shortage could lead to school building shut down; other area schools increasing in-person instruction

• Oct. 3, 2020 — Kansas education leader: Schools must find better way to educate students during pandemic

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