A Lawrence mom alleges the school district is breaking a new state law by not allowing her daughter to return to in-person learning.
JaNell Kaleikini told The Lawrence Times a law signed last week by Gov. Laura Kelly should guarantee a classroom seat for her daughter, a third-grader. The 9-year-old has participated as a distance learner through Sunset Hill Elementary since the COVID-19 pandemic began more than a year ago.
Instead, Kaleikini said, the school district has denied her requests for in-person instruction and ignored Senate Bill 63, which the Kansas Legislature passed in March. Known as the Back to School Act, the law states, “… on and after March 31, 2021, for school year 2020-2021, every school district in this state shall provide a full-time, in person attendance option for every student enrolled in kindergarten or grades one through 12 in such school district.”
As a single parent, Kaleikini feels desperate to get her daughter back in the classroom. She said she’s willing to let her daughter attend another elementary school in the district where space allows, although she’d prefer her daughter return to her home school.
The single mom commutes to her job at a corporation in Kansas City. Since January, the 9-year-old has taken the commute daily as well, sometimes arriving at her mom’s office as early as 6 a.m.
During the fall semester, Kaleikini’s elderly parents provided childcare, but that was only a temporary solution. Then Kaleikini contracted COVID-19 and worked from home temporarily. Kaleikini said she can’t afford full-time childcare, so she’s been taking her daughter to work with her since January.
Kaleikini said her grievance lies with district staff, not with Sunset Hill principal Jeremy Philipp or her daughter’s teacher. In correspondence shared with the Times, Kaleikini advises Philipp about the new law and its requirements in an email dated April 8. She writes that her daughter hasn’t been able to “get logged in remotely and stay logged in due to the poor connection she gets” at her workplace.
Although Kaleikini’s daughter has a school-issued iPad to access distance learning instruction, she told the Times that internet connectivity at her job location has been sporadic and undependable. Due to security protocol, she explained, she can’t allow the district’s device access to her employer’s network.
In an email response from Philipp to Kaleikini on April 14, Philipp explains he contacted “someone at the district” and they were “offering all families the option of five days/week in-person learning, per the new law” and that families were given an enrollment deadline.
“This family chose to enroll in DYL (Distance Yearlong),” Philipp continued. “We have since denied their request to change enrollment after the deadline. Our rationale for denying their requests is based on staffing and space available. We have a hotspot here at Sunset Hill ready to be checked out whenever it is convenient for you.”
But Kaleikini said she’s already tried a personal hotspot on her cellphone and then purchased a separate hotspot. Neither proved reliable.
“Her teacher agrees,” Kaleikini said. “The connection is so glitchy she can’t see her, half the time she can’t hear her. So she’s not getting any kind of instruction and she can’t stay connected to be able to get her assignments done. At this point, I’m done with trying to hotspot. She needs to be in school, full time and in person.”
This isn’t the first attempt Kaleikini has made to return her daughter to in-person instruction. In February, when Lawrence Public Schools announced it would transition hybrid learners to in-person learning, she made a written request to Sunset Hill for her daughter to return. A March 3 email from Darcy Kraus, director of elementary schools, says her request to change learning models was denied.
The Times asked Julie Boyle, executive director of communications for the school district, via email whether the district believed it was in compliance. Though her email did not address Kaleikini’s situation directly, it implied the district had complied with the new law.
“Lawrence Public Schools offered all of its families the option of five days per week in-person learning, in keeping with the requirement of SB 63,” the email said. “The district requested elementary families make their final enrollment choices by October 15, 2020. Some families chose to enroll their students in distance learning for the remainder of the school year … The district honored families’ choices and made staffing decisions based on their enrollment.”
The email from Boyle also confirmed that elementary families were given another opportunity to share concerns about their final enrollment choices by Feb. 25 and “decisions about any late requests for enrollment changes were evaluated based on staffing and space available.”
“Reassigning elementary teachers in March would have disrupted classes for many of our elementary students,” Boyle continued. “Prior feedback from our elementary families indicated they did not want their children’s teacher assignments to change.”
SB 63 says that the legislation will take effect and be in force after its publication in the Kansas register. It was published in the register on Thursday.
In early April, Kaleikini said, she received a warning letter from the school indicating her daughter had 10 or more days of absences. For the last four weeks, Kaleikini said, she’s been working on math, English and reading with her daughter using a workbook she bought online.
“She’s falling behind, I’m doing what we can,” Kaleikini said. “She’s still writing every day. She’s doing simple math problems that I know we can do together, but she’s frustrated because she’s falling so far behind and she’s not getting to see any of her classmates or have any of that other interaction with kids her age.”
Now, Kaleikini hopes, she can count on the Back to School Act to get her daughter on a successful learning track again. She said she’ll keep pursuing in-person learning.
“She would definitely be able to get caught up,” Kaleikini told the Times. “She’d be able to start learning again because she’d be able to hear and see the teacher to be able to work on assignments. Her morale, everything would change for her.”
“I am beyond frustrated that my daughter is being denied the basic rights of education with the rationale that is based on ‘staffing and space available,'” Kaleikini said. “This is something the district was supposed to be working on the entire school year, and now that the time has come to allow students back to school they are not prepared and my child, along with who knows how many others, are now suffering because of it.”
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