Remote learning not an option for school districts this academic year despite ongoing pandemic

photo by: Meeting screenshot/USD 497

Lawrence Superintendent Anthony Lewis speaks to the school board on Monday, Aug. 23, 2021. During the meeting, Lewis said remote learning was not available to the district during the 2021-22 school year.

Unlike last year, Lawrence students won’t be learning through their computer screens at any point during the 2021-22 school year, despite the ongoing coronavirus pandemic.

That’s because a new Kansas law generally prohibits the practice.

Lawrence Superintendent Anthony Lewis on Monday explained during a school board meeting that the Kansas State Department of Education recently provided guidance to schools that remote learning was off the table.

“Remote learning will not be offered to students this year,” Lewis said.

Under House Bill 2134, which the Kansas Legislature and Gov. Laura Kelly approved in the spring, schools can use remote learning for a student for only 40 hours a school year, allowing for temporary issues such as weather or a gas leak at a school building. Otherwise, Lawrence families who want their children to learn remotely this school year will need to enroll them in the district’s virtual school.

Lewis shared that information with the school board as cases of the virus continue to rise in Douglas County. As of Monday, Douglas County has a 4.3% 14-day average positivity rate for the virus. That’s the highest the rate has been since January 2021, according to Lawrence-Douglas County Public Health data.

The Lawrence school district last year spent more than half of its fall semester completely remote. It also remained in a hybrid learning model — with a portion of students learning from home through online video conferencing while others were in their classrooms — until March.

The use of remote learning and whether it was resulting in children falling behind in their education became a contentious issue throughout the country. While some Lawrence parents had called for classes to move back to fully in-person learning, many teachers and other parents had called on the district to learn remotely until vaccines were available in the spring.

Vaccines eventually rolled out, and schools returned to in-person learning shortly thereafter. But the state law may stop the arguments over instructional methods from continuing into the new year as well.

The law also leaves school districts with fewer options in how to respond to an outbreak of the virus in their schools, which has become a possibility as cases of COVID-19’s Delta variant appear to be more contagious and more prevalent among children. Additionally, many K-12 students are not protected from the virus because those under age 12 are not eligible to be vaccinated.

So far, the school district has reported eight cases of the virus this school year, which began last week. All eight are among students, according to the district’s website.

Some steps have been taken to help mitigate the spread of the virus among students. The Lawrence district requires all students, staff and visitors in its buildings to wear masks. Meanwhile, the Douglas County Commission has ordered anyone between the age of 2 and 12 to wear masks while indoors, including in school buildings.

But an outbreak is still possible, and how school districts make sure learning continues if that happens remains to be seen. Lawrence district spokeswoman Julie Boyle said the district did not currently have a specific plan for responding to an outbreak but would work with public health officials should that issue arise.

“Our priority is to keep students safe and in school,” Boyle said. “In the event of an outbreak, the district would continue to work with the Kansas State Department of Education, Kansas Department of Health and Environment, and our local public health partners to determine an appropriate response.”

In the meantime, the district has a plan for students who may need to learn from home because they are in quarantine because of the virus. While they won’t be using computer screens to attend classes, Lewis said, teachers will make assignments for quarantining students to do at home.

Not all students who are exposed to the virus will need to quarantine. As the Journal-World previously reported, the district’s close-contact protocols require individuals to quarantine for 10 days after an exposure, but fully vaccinated individuals will be exempt from those protocols unless they are symptomatic.

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