Lawrence school board votes 5-2 to give students and staff a full week off for Thanksgiving break; many parents opposed over child-care concerns

photo by: Journal-World

Lawrence Public Schools district offices pictured in April 2021.

Lawrence school district students and staff will now get a full week off during the week of Thanksgiving.

During a special meeting on Friday, the school board approved a plan to cancel two school days that week — Monday, Nov. 22, and Tuesday, Nov. 23 — to provide students, faculty and staff with additional time for wellness and self-care.

Superintendent Anthony Lewis told the board during the meeting that the time off was needed because faculty and staff were at a breaking point from the stress and other difficulties caused by the coronavirus pandemic. He said educators have routinely said that the current school year has been even more difficult than last year, when many classes were mostly held remotely or through hybrid learning because of the pandemic.

The pandemic has been difficult because faculty and staff are stretched thin. Lewis said they were being asked to help fill roles and duties that are currently unfilled because of staff and substitute teacher shortages. In some cases, faculty and staff are giving up their planning and lunch periods to fill in.

“We need to take action and listen to our staff,” Lewis said. “We need to give our staff and students the opportunity to rest and recharge so they can come back to finish off the semester strong.”

However, the approval of the plan from the school board did not come easily. The board approved the plan with a 5-2 vote, with board President Erica Hill and Carole Cadue-Blackwood voting against it.

Hill said her vote did not signify that she did not support the idea, but that she was hesitant to approve the specific dates offered in the plan. She said the board received hundreds of emails before the meeting, with the vast majority of them coming from parents who supported providing days off for teachers and staff but at a different time period.

Cadue-Blackwood said she also supported the idea but not the dates. Her concern was that the district had not yet finalized an alternative child-care plan for marginalized families who are dependent on the school district for various kinds of support.

Hill said some parents were also concerned with how quickly the plan came about, not giving much time for them to plan for the days off. She said some characterized the plan as “reactionary,” rather than a fully thought-out idea, and suggested the time off be provided by extending the winter break in January.

Lewis said the plan was not reactionary, but instead an immediate preventive step to help address substitute teacher shortages, teacher and staff absences and an increase of teachers who are resigning from their positions midyear. As the Journal-World previously reported, the school district in the last two school years has seen a significant increase in the number of teachers resigning when the school year was already underway.

“The sense of urgency is simple: it’s our teachers’ and staff’s well-being,” Lewis said. “The attempt is to try to prevent more teachers from leaving the profession and trying to prevent that breaking point.”

Lewis also said the two school days before Thanksgiving were the most common days faculty, staff and students were absent.

Board member Melissa Johnson, who is a teacher for the Kansas City, Kan., school district, said she understood the decision was difficult and not everyone would be happy with it. But she also said teachers across the state were at a crisis point amid the pandemic and were experiencing a significant effect on their mental health.

She said she has also been struggling mentally as she teaches this semester and at one point had a breakdown as she was on her way to work because she was overwhelmed. She said she has also seen students who are exhausted and need a break.

Meanwhile, Kelly Jones and Shannon Kimball said it was a difficult decision to make, but they ultimately decided that supporting the faculty and staff was important.

Kimball said she was also alarmed by the number of teacher resignations the district has already seen and she has heard from teachers who are considering resigning at the end of the fall semester. She said that’s “almost unheard of” because it could hurt a teacher’s career and even result in teachers losing their teaching license if a school district files a complaint against them.

“It is a cry for help, to me, that we have educators who are saying ‘I have reached the point I can’t even finish out a semester in this profession,'” Kimball said. “This is one small step that I see I can take to say to our staff and our students that ‘I care about you and I want you to be successful.'”

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