The third school year of the COVID-19 pandemic kicks off this week in Lawrence Public Schools. As students join their teachers in classrooms across Lawrence, questions and uncertainties loom.
When the school year wrapped up in May, the threat of COVID-19 had started to diminish as regulators expanded use of the COVID-19 vaccine for children ages 12 to 15, making many middle school students eligible. Children under 12 remain ineligible to receive the vaccine, leaving some worried about the highly contagious delta variant of the respiratory infection and how it could impact the school year.
As students return for back-to-school events this week, the school district is making the vaccine available on-site, offering incentives and rebranding them as “Vax 2 School” events in secondary schools.
Some COVID practices will remain the same. Positive cases reported in the Lawrence school district will continue to be listed on the COVID-19 prevention measures page of the district’s website, Julie Boyle, district spokesperson, said in an email.
As was the case during last school year, masks will be required indoors on district property for those ages 2 and older. Masks will not be required while eating, drinking or during designated mask breaks. Staff and special education teams will work with individuals unable to wear a mask on a case-by-case basis.
Parent Julie Fugett, mother of a district 4th grader who’s returning to in-person classes after more than a year of distance learning, said she’s “really excited” about her 9-year-old daughter’s return.
“We feel really good about how safe she’ll be in school and that they’re going to be doing all the right things,” Fugett said of district staff. “I will always have concerns, but I know that she’s a pro at wearing her mask and I know that masks work. So while we’d never say there’s no risk, we’ve done everything we can to reduce risk to acceptable levels.”
Fugett, who heads information technology security at the University of Kansas, said she hoped Douglas County would move toward another mask mandate. If it doesn’t, Fugett said she hoped community members would voluntarily mask up and get vaccinated so that in-person learning could occur safely throughout the year.
Lawrence-Douglas County Public Health has a goal of 70% of eligible residents vaccinated by Aug. 31. As of Monday, Aug. 16, 65% of eligible Douglas County residents have received at least one dose of the COVID-19 vaccine and 58% had completed the vaccine series.
As for parents and guardians who might feel curious whether their child’s teachers comprise that 65%, Boyle said, “The district does not plan to require staff to show proof of vaccination nor is there an expectation that staff share their vaccination status with others unless they choose to do so.”
Of particular concern to some parents and staff members has been meal times, when large groups of students will unmask together.
Boyle said staff would enforce handwashing before and after meals, and grab-and-go meal options served with disposable containers and utensils would continue. Elementary building administrators and food service staff will determine the locations for meals, which could include classrooms. Middle and high school students will eat in cafeterias and other dining areas, including outdoor spaces.
Additional measures, Boyle noted, include air filtration devices that may be used in cafeterias, “3 feet or as much social distancing as possible,” no trading or sharing of food, and no visitors during meal times. Free breakfast and lunch will continue for all students this school year.
Weather permitting, Boyle said the district would continue to encourage teachers to use outdoor learning areas whenever possible.
Virtual learning options and limits
Meanwhile, a new Kansas law has administrators and state leaders perplexed. As GOP leaders in the Kansas Legislature worked to curtail Gov. Laura Kelly’s emergency powers during the pandemic, legislators passed a K-12 education bill that included restrictions on remote learning in Kansas public schools.
Unhappy with school districts that continued in remote learning during the 2020-2021 school year, some legislators pushed for restrictions on virtual education. With the passage of House Bill 2134, school districts are prohibited from providing more than 40 hours of remote learning to any student. According to an Aug. 11 news release from the Kansas Association of School Boards, the law is causing confusion and worry among school administrators and parents concerned about rising numbers of COVID cases as school starts.
KASB reports any student “exceeding 40 hours without an exemption is funded at $5,000 per student, less than half the average funding per pupil.” Local school boards may exempt specific students for illness, medical condition, injury or extraordinary circumstances, but they must notify the Kansas State Board of Education.
A legislative summary of the bill notes the state board may authorize waivers for more than 40 hours of remote learning due to a disaster restricting operation of public schools for an excessive amount of time. The state will require school districts to certify their remote enrollment count annually by June 30, and any district that doesn’t follow the guidelines will need to return a portion of its funding to the state.
When asked about the district’s plan for dealing with the new law’s restrictions on remote learning and its harsh funding penalties for noncompliance, Boyle said the district will limit remote learning “to the maximum allowable hours per student as required by state law.”
Families interested in enrolling in the district’s full-time virtual learning option — Lawrence Virtual School — can learn more at the school’s website. Boyle said the district does not have registration deadlines. LVS is accepting enrollment, and a check of the website says it is “assisting families with a high volume of calls.”