For the first time in a year, students are filing through the hallways of Lawrence Public Schools’ 14 elementary buildings Monday through Friday.
This week marks a crucial step in the advent of what many see as a “return to normal” due to the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic, which has spawned a year of quarantines, physical distancing, online meetings and pivots in countless directions.
Julie Boyle, executive director of communications for the district, said that Monday — the first day back from spring break — went smoothly.
“(It) felt like a first day of school with some of that same excitement among staff and students happy to be back together,” Boyle said via email.
Superintendent Anthony Lewis announced at the Feb. 8 school board meeting that students in the hybrid model of instruction would shift to in-person learning at elementary schools March 15 and at middle and high schools March 29. The district continues to offer distance learning for K-12 students who have elected to learn remotely.
Lewis cited the five-week timeline as a way to get more district staff vaccinated against COVID-19. As of Tuesday morning, the district’s online vaccination dashboard says about 82% of staff have received at least one vaccination.
The timeline also allowed installation of 1,700 new air filtration devices intended to improve air quality and reduce virus spread. Funded at $799,000 by the federal CARES Act grant, the Austin Air HealthMate purifiers use HEPA technology to remove up to 95% of airborne viruses, bacteria, dust, dander and allergens, according to the Feb. 22 board meeting consent agenda. Their filters last about five years.
With the return to fully in-person learning, the district will no longer observe remote-learning Wednesdays, which has led some to questions of whether deep-cleaning and sanitation would suffer.
Boyle said it might be easier for custodial staff to clean classrooms when empty, but they’ve been trained on districtwide sanitation protocol and are used to cleaning while schools are in session five days a week.
The potential of overcrowded classrooms and space constraints for physical distancing has also caused some educators and parents to question the safety of reopening plans.
Boyle said an October 2020 report to the board by enrollment consultant RSP & Associates found that 11 of 14 elementary schools are under 85% building capacity. Overall district elementary capacity is about 69%. And with nearly two-thirds of students enrolled in distance learning, fewer students will finish the year in district buildings.
“Our hybrid enrollment prior to spring break represented 64% of our total student population,” Boyle said. “In addition, 83% of our elementary, 60% of middle school, and 99.8% of high school classes were serving fewer than 20 students at that time.”
The district plans to maximize space by encouraging teachers to use large common areas such as gyms and cafeterias when available and to utilize outdoor learning when weather permits. It has also eliminated nonessential furniture.
“We will continue to observe as much physical distancing as possible,” Boyle said.
Eleven weeks of school remain on the district calendar. And they could prove challenging, according to Lindsay Buck, interim president of Lawrence Education Association and special education teacher at Lawrence High School.
In an email to The Lawrence Times, Buck said the hope is to build a strong foundation in the coming weeks to allow for a smooth transition into the next academic year.
“In some ways, this final quarter of school will be the most challenging because of all that our students and staff have been through,” Buck said. “Our primary concern is getting students comfortable in the classroom again, and rebuilding the relationships that are so important to successful education. While doing that, our academic focus will be on salvaging as many of the state standards as possible. The State of Kansas has elected to test our students as if this were a normal school year, so we will need to do our best to be prepared for that.”
Families hoping to make up for learning loss due to the pandemic will have summer learning opportunities to consider, Boyle said.
“We also are looking ahead and developing plans to use federal COVID-relief funds to offer more robust summer learning opportunities to help bridge the gap,” she said.
Email Q&A with Lindsay Buck, interim president of Lawrence Education Association and special education teacher at Lawrence High School
The Lawrence Times: (At the last school board meeting on Feb. 21, 2021,) you advocated on behalf of LEA members for a detailed plan to safely and effectively return to fully in-person classes with the safety of students, educators and the community prioritized. With elementary schools returning to fully in-person learning Monday, how has the district responded to these concerns by LEA?
Buck: We’ve received word that air purifiers have been delivered to all the buildings, and as of this (Monday) morning, we’ve heard that of those who expressed interest in receiving the vaccine, 82% have received at least their first dose. LEA applauds Governor Kelly for issuing the K-12 vaccine implementation plan to speed up the process for educators to receive their vaccines. The district has coordinated first-dose vaccine efforts efficiently and has been in communication with LEA throughout the process. LEA is also grateful for the extremely smooth and well-organized mass vaccination clinic site coordinated by our county employees, health care workers, and countless volunteers.
Times: What is your outlook for Monday?
Buck: Educators are excited to welcome their students back, and we know that with the proper safety protocols and mitigation efforts in place and enforced, everyone can remain safe. LEA will continue to advocate for the safety and wellbeing of students and educators as we move to this newest phase of reopening.
Times: How does it feel to be marking one year dealing with COVID-19?
Buck: For many it is surreal. We’ve heard from educators who recall leaving for spring break a year ago, and then not coming back, and what a strange shift it was for all of us to adjust to a pandemic world. It has been an incredibly challenging year for all school stakeholders, but with the vaccination timeline announcement by President Biden, it is encouraging to think there is finally a light at the end of the tunnel.