Not quite ‘back to normal’: Lawrence teachers, parents weigh in on return to K-5 classrooms

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Story updated to add counts of distance vs. in-person learners, 5:29 p.m. Tuesday, March 30:

Lawrence Public Schools welcomed back elementary students to full-time, in-person learning two weeks ago. On Monday, students and staff in middle and high schools got their turn.

The Lawrence Times checked in with some K-5 teachers and parents to find out how they’ve fared in the transition.

Teachers adjust to new needs

Elementary teachers who work with students on-site have seen students in the hybrid format (meaning students went to buildings two days per week) since October. That means about twice as many students now fill a classroom every day, and many are tired.

Music teacher Megan Epperson said the transition has proved exciting, but challenging, at Broken Arrow and Woodlawn elementary schools. She said students have shown their resilience while working on rebuilding their stamina.

“We had some frayed ends and emotions at the end of that first week — it was really important as a teacher to listen and observe their needs,” Epperson said in an email.

“They are navigating their own trauma of the past year and need a lot of support, grace, consistency, and kindness from the adults around them … It’s important to remember that we are not ‘back to normal’ right now for them — their ‘normal’ has adjusted to mean being at home more often and having a different routine and expectations, because they are so young and one year is a big part of their life,” Epperson said. “Even for adults, this is still an adjustment.”

The end of hybrid learning means Epperson can finally call one dedicated classroom her own after 1 ½ semesters of teaching on a cart and hopping from one classroom to the next. Epperson described it as “exhausting to move materials everywhere” while writing double lesson plans for students at home and at school.

She said although she feels a relief to teach in her own classroom, it’s been a big adjustment having so many people in one space again after a year of physical distancing.

COVID-19 protocols and numbers

Julie Boyle, executive director of communications for the district, said in an email that schools “are providing as much social distancing as possible given class enrollments and available physical space. If a class can accommodate 6 (feet) of social distancing, then that is the expectation.”

As of early Tuesday, the district’s website showed 11 COVID-19 cases reported in elementary classrooms since returning from spring break March 15. That figure includes seven students and one staff member who have attended school at least once since March 15.

Boyle said Tuesday that the district currently has 3,292 distance learners and 7,164 students attending school in person.

Parents weigh in on safety

At Schwegler, kindergartners got an early start. They were invited to attend full-time classes two weeks early.

The transition proved tough at first for Nicole Rundle’s youngest child, Jamie. The head start helped, Rundle said, but the shift has been confusing and overwhelming for the kindergartner.

“It was really stressful for him,” Rundle said. “We’ve been telling him for a year we can’t go anywhere. We can’t see our family and we can’t do this and everything is closed because of COVID.”

“I think he’s doing better now. It was just the initial,” she continued. “All of a sudden he has twice as many kids in his class. And there’s so many more people around the school than he’s previously been used to.”

Boyle said kindergarten class sizes at Schwegler sit in the upper teens.

A mother of four, Rundle launched an at-home daycare 16 years ago. At one point during the pandemic, she had six kids in her home business participating in distance learning, plus other children in her southwest Lawrence daycare who needed attention. Living and working in the same space has been a heavy load on her shoulders, she said.

“It’s just been a lot of ups and downs. We get to ‘This is what life’s going to be like,’ and then it just keeps switching and I have a hard time doing that,” Rundle said. “I rejoined Planet Fitness so that I could get away from the house, because for months I didn’t have anything.”

As for COVID-19 mitigation, Rundle has kept the virus out of her home and business.

“They’re kids. My daycare kids tackle each other. They’re totally never 6 feet apart. Even as much as I do try to ‘OK, we’re going to stand on this dot and this dot that’s 6 feet away from that one.’ They can’t do it,” she said. “I mean, I know that. It’s a lot of kids to be in one classroom, but doing distance learning wasn’t working.”

All of Rundle’s three sons returned to in-person learning this month. Her oldest, a daughter named Charity, will finish her senior year with Lawrence High School as a distance learner before heading off to college in Boseman, Montana. 

“She doesn’t see a purpose of going for two months,” Rundle said.

Devices remain the norm

In the Prairie Park neighborhood, mom Courtney Coffey feels comfortable with school safety measures surrounding COVID. One of her three children, a second grader, has ADHD, which makes learning on an iPad difficult for him.

 “The remote learning was a nightmare,” Coffey said. “I feel like he has (fallen) behind due to it.”

“We all hated remote learning. The hybrid schedule wasn’t too bad, but they wanted to be back at school. The kids love being back,” Coffey said.

Coffey’s only frustrations with the return stem from the continued use of iPads in the classroom.

In messages Coffey shared with the Times, Prairie Park Principal Shannon Harrelson told Coffey that district schools are 1:1 (meaning one device per student), and that although paper-to-pencil tasks are still occurring, students are using iPads for a variety of reasons, including technology literacy, learning apps and media activities.

Return to the library

Library media specialist Erin Schramm welcomed students back to the Prairie Park library to the sounds of claps and cheers.

“Even though this is my 9th year as an educator, I hadn’t taught in person in over a year! But once they walked up and were waiting to come into the library, I was just so excited,” Schramm said via email.

Schramm added that she knows not everyone shares her feelings, but having students back on-site every day has improved her job tremendously.

“My workload is lighter, my stress levels are better, I feel like I can actually get through to the kids because they are sitting right in front of me. I can tell if they are engaged or not in a way that I can’t if their camera is off and I have no idea if they are even there, let alone listening,” Schramm said.

“I am so thankful for the parents and families that have been supportive of their teachers and schools throughout this whole ordeal. This hasn’t been easy for anyone — students, families, or teachers. Knowing that our families realize how hard we’ve been working to make this as successful as possible, while trying to keep everyone safe, really does make an enormous difference. We love our students so much, and I know that I am thrilled to have them all back in the building.”

More coverage:

• March 16, 2021: Lawrence K-5 schools’ first day back to in-person learning goes smoothly, district says

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