Nearly 2,000 students absent from Lawrence district amid COVID surge; new school board members sworn in

photo by: Contributed

Absence data presented to the Lawrence school board on Jan. 10, 2022, amid a COVID-19 surge

Since returning from winter break last week, the Lawrence school district has been facing a significant number of student and teaching absences.

Nearly 2,000 students have been absent from school each day since Thursday because of a recent COVID-19 surge, said Superintendent Anthony Lewis on Monday during a school board meeting. Those students make up almost about 19%, or nearly one-fifth, of the district’s overall enrollment.

Lewis reported that information to the board remotely, as he is in quarantine after testing positive for the virus himself.

“This is our current reality. This is where we are,” Lewis said.

Meanwhile, more than 100 teachers have also been absent during the same time period, requiring the district to fill those positions with dozens of substitute teachers.

Lewis said the district has been able to fill more than 80% of the absences needing to be filled with substitutes during those three school days. He also said some positions have been filled by other district staff, such as principles and guidance counselors stepping in.

While both the student and teacher absences are normally higher this time of the year when the district is returning from winter break, Lewis said the current data is more significant than the past. He said a 19% absent rate is “not where we want to be,” but he did not have the data to compare it to previous years.

For comparison, during remote learning in the fall of 2020, the district reported only a 5% absence rate, the Journal-World previously reported.

Board member Kelly Jones, who called the data reported on Monday “alarming,” asked what the tipping point was for the district to close a school because of too many absences among staff. She said she specifically asked so parents could be prepared to deal with a school closing, if it comes to that point.

Lewis said the district will not be able to open a school if there are too many teaching absences and can’t fill the positions with substitute teachers, but did not give a specific point where that decision would be made. He said the district will try to keep families informed of that possibility as much as it can.

He said he’s also heard from members of the public asking why the district has not gone to remote learning amid the surge. He said state law currently only allows the district to use 40 hours of remote learning per student, which is roughly five school days, limiting its use. He also noted if the district goes over that amount of time, it’s state funding could be docked.

In the meantime, Lewis thanked Lawrence Douglas County Public Health for recently installing an emergency mask mandate, noting it applies to the district’s school buildings. Lewis also repeatedly encouraged people to get vaccinated.

“This is going to take an entire community to get this under control,” he said.

New board members

photo by: Dylan Lysen/Lawrence Journal-World

New Lawrence school board member Andrew Nussbaum swears in to his position during a meeting on Jan. 10, 2022.

Two new members took their seats on the board on Monday.

Douglas County Clerk Jamie Shew swore in Kay Emerson and Andrew Nussbaum to serve four-year terms. Incumbent board member Kelly Jones was also sworn in for a second term.

Along with Jones, Emerson and Nussbaum were elected to the board in November. They filled the seats of former board members Melissa Johnson and G.R. Gordon-Ross.

Both Emerson and Nussbaum have prior experience with the school district. Emerson previously served on the board’s COVID-19 advisory committee and was also chair for the board’s parents of color advisory committee. Nussbaum is a former special education teacher for the district’s secondary therapeutic classroom.

photo by: Dylan Lysen/Lawrence Journal-World

New Lawrence school board member Kay Emerson, right, speaks during her first meeting on Jan. 10, 2022 as board member Carole Cadue-Blackwood, left, watches.

In other business, the board:

• Approved the hiring of Cynde Frick, a certified public accountant, as the new executive director of finance and school board treasurer.

Frick is currently the director of financial operations for the Baldwin City School District. She will take over the position for Kathy Johnson, who is scheduled to retire at the end of the month.

• Heard a budget report from Johnson regarding the district’s focus on increasing the amount of unencumbered cash in certain budgets, such as special education and the contingency reserve funds.

Johnson said setting the goals for each fund was the first step toward improving the health of the district’s funding reserves. All told, the district wants to increase the unencumbered cash balances of the funds by about $4 million.

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