Acknowledging that the decision was difficult and no matter what they did, some community members would be upset, the Lawrence school board voted to give students, teachers and staff a full week off for fall break.
At a special meeting Friday called by board President Erica Hill, board members voted 5-2 to add Monday and Tuesday, Nov. 22 and 23, to fall break. Altogether, schools will have five weekdays off, plus two weekends, totaling a nine-day holiday.
The possibility of extending fall break was announced in an email and voice message at 5 p.m. Thursday by Superintendent Anthony Lewis, who said the proposed extension would provide much-needed wellness and self-care for teachers and students. He invited families and staff to share their feedback with him and the board via email. With 20 hours’ notice for public input, educators, parents and community members took to social media to deliberate the pros and cons of an extended break.
For parents, the struggle to make alternative work and childcare arrangements with 10 days’ notice revealed the unexpected twists and challenges parenting can entail. But in a pandemic and a tough school year that has taxed educators and led to a rise in midyear resignations, the extra two days were a welcome gesture for teachers and those wanting to express support for them.
During the meeting Friday, Lewis acknowledged the short notice of the proposal had caused concerns among families, especially about alternative childcare arrangements. “We were really trying to swiftly get a meeting set to provide families ample amount of time to make arrangements should this proposal pass. That was the rationale of the timing of this board meeting. It could have waited until Monday, but we didn’t want to put families into even more of a situation in terms of finding childcare.”
Lewis and board members said they had received a tremendous amount of feedback from the community, including nonprofit organizations that help the most vulnerable and marginalized. After a discussion where board members weighed the advantages for mental health and well-being as well as the hardships that could come from the proposal, including care challenges and the dangers some might face by staying home such as an increase in domestic violence and food insecurity, the proposal won out.
Hill said community members she heard from agreed overwhelmingly for the need to support teachers and staff, but the urgency and timing were at issue for many. Hill called for an effort to work together and “pull each other up” instead of continuing “a narrative of divisiveness.”
During discussion, board members asked if delaying an extended break to December or January might be possible. Board member Melissa Johnson, a teacher in a nearby school district, said teachers and students both feel tired and stressed.
“The urgency is now. It’s at the breaking point,” Johnson said, remembering a day on her way to work recently when she broke down and cried. “I love my students, and I just felt overwhelmed. A lot of these teachers are like that.”
Board member Shannon Kimball echoed the sentiment. She expressed concerns about district staffing shortages in both the short-term — such as substitute teachers — and the ability of the district to retain highly qualified staff in the long run.
“I cannot ignore what is actually happening on the ground and the experiences of our students and staff right now,” Kimball said, calling the rising number of midyear resignations already this school year a “cry for help.”
“This is one small step that I see I can take to say to our staff and our students that I care about you. I want you to be successful. I know right now that many of you have exceeded your breaking point,” Kimball said, noting her vote wasn’t taken lightly.
Board member Carole Cadue-Blackwood said she agreed with the need for a mental health break for teachers and staff. But, as Lewis noted, although the district had been exploring alternative childcare options for the two additional days of break, nothing had been finalized.
“Because there is no guarantee of childcare, I cannot with a clear conscience have voted yes,” Cadue-Blackwood said.
Sarah Hamlin, assistant director of human resources, told the board that certified, administrative and classified hourly workers would receive compensation for the additional time if they had already been scheduled to work Nov. 22 and 23. Staff also said during the meeting that they would see what could be done to make sure school bus drivers are paid.
During the 55-minute long meeting, the board did not invite public comment. Lewis and all seven board members appeared virtually. District spokesperson Julie Boyle said before the meeting that the board doesn’t generally take public comment during special meetings, but that decision rests with board members.
The board initially approved the 2021-2022 school calendar — with no school on Wednesday, Thursday and Friday, Nov. 24-26 — at its meeting on Feb. 22, 2021. Lewis said the two-day break would add no additional instructional time to the school year.