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Lawrence parents and teachers worry about risks, burden of omicron as return to school looms

Schools will be back in session Thursday despite record numbers of COVID-19 infections in Douglas County, leaving parents and teachers wondering how the district plans to keep people safe and buildings staffed.

Julie Boyle, spokesperson for Lawrence Public Schools, said the district had no plans to delay the start of school and that the district would continue to follow the prevention measures based on federal, state, and local public health guidance for schools. The district will also continue to offer testing as students return to school.

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“The district continues to require that masks be worn in all school buildings,” she said. “The district continues to partner with KDHE to provide its Test to Stay, Learn, Play, and Participate testing program to keep students safe and in school.”

Some parents and teachers, however, worry that measures that were successful early in the school year might be losing some of their effectiveness.

Jackie Stafford, a seventh grade English and AVID teacher at Liberty Memorial Central Middle School, said small classrooms at her school made social distancing nearly impossible, and students were struggling to wear masks properly.

“We have lots of difficulty with kids and mask compliance,” she said. “I have to insist that they wear their masks. I sound like a broken record.”

But without strong, districtwide policies in place, Stafford said enforcement was difficult.

Parents of Free State High School students on Tuesday evening received an email from principal Myron Graber welcoming students back and clarifying mask policies.

“Because of an increase in positive COVID cases, masks must be worn at all times when in the building, except for eating lunch and for a drink of water,” the email said. “If students do not comply, a call will be made and the student will be sent home. The state has taken away the remote option.”

Graber was referring to action taken by the Kansas Legislature last spring that would reduce funding to schools utilizing remote learning, making it more difficult for districts to adapt and use online learning tools as an alternative to in-person classrooms.

Stafford said that although no one relished the idea of returning to remote learning, the option of using nontraditional teaching methods might have been useful as more students and teachers are unable to be in the classroom due to illness.

“I’m concerned about the revolving door of children who will be in and out of school,” she said. “I worry about the continuity of instruction and how to catch kids up. It’s going to be a struggle.”

Though vaccines and boosters provide protection against infection and limits severity of symptoms, the highly contagious omicron variant is causing the virus to spread again at a rapid pace.

Click here to see the latest COVID-19 stats for Lawrence, the Lawrence school district, and Douglas County on the Times’ dashboard.

Tracy Adair Derning, parent of a freshman at Lawrence High School, said that although most people could feel confident in that protection, her family remains highly vigilant to protect her husband, who is immunocompromised.

“We’ve done everything we possibly could, but there’s no way to protect everyone when we’re in the middle of a pandemic and people are still screaming ‘don’t mask the children,’” she said. “What are we going to say to our teachers and staff — especially our paras and staff for special needs — where distancing is not possible? I am terribly worried what is going to come when our kids go back to school on Thursday.”

Teachers are also concerned about the availability of substitute teachers if COVID infections spread rapidly through the district’s instructors.

Diana Bailey, a fifth grade teacher at Deerfield Elementary School, said prior to the holiday break teachers were already struggling to find substitute teachers. In many cases, teachers are asked to cover for their colleagues, but some have questioned whether it’s ethical to stretch teachers so thin.

“It’s a fine line,” Bailey said. “I’ve started to say no to covering, but it’s hard. We’ve got to make a statement, but then you’re screwing over a fellow teacher. You don’t want to leave them or their children high and dry.”

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Limitations to paid leave might also affect a teacher’s eagerness to be tested for COVID as prescribed by many health officials. PCR tests frequently require several days to return results. Bailey said that her family had spent portions of their holiday vacation in Missouri, Florida and Colorado. Though she has been stringent about frequent testing during their travels, Bailey worried that the added days of waiting for test results might lead some vacationers to forgo the added layer of safety.

District policy gives teachers five sick days and five personal days per year. That paid leave can be saved and rolled over from year to year, but many teachers — especially those who are new to the district or who have children of their own — can go through that allotment very quickly.

“Since we get summers off, it feels like we’re not supposed to have anything happen in the other nine months,” Bailey said. “It makes you feel worthless and unappreciated. We’re giving 110 percent to those kiddos.”

Megan Green Stuke, executive director of the Willow Domestic Violence Center, is mother of a fourth grade student at Schwegler and a sixth grade student at Billy Mills Middle School. She said parents who are concerned about their children have the right to keep their children home, but without adequate planning and assistance, only those who are fortunate have the means do so. She was disappointed that district officials hadn’t planned weeks ahead in anticipation of how a more highly contagious variant might possibly affect both student and teachers.

She said she had been troubled by the district’s last-minute decision to extend the fall break because of how last-minute changes can put children at risk as well as their families’ livelihoods.

“We have to consider all parts of this,” she said. “We have to consider options and nuances for people. The district has to give people grace and bend for them like a willow tree. Parents have to make hard choices.”

In the coming weeks, Bailey hopes she sees district officials working harder to come up with creative solutions to problems like the shortage of subs, which now seems unavoidable. She suggested, among other things, that administrators might consider working from offices within each of the schools, providing additional support to teachers when staffing is short.

Bailey said was proud of many accomplishments made by USD 497, but it was time for the district to reimagine what education looks like.

“I’m nervous about what’s going to happen,” she said. “It’s hard. There’s nothing I would rather do than teach. But I’m starting to think maybe I should do something else.”

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Andrea Albright (she/her), reporter, can be reached at aalbright (at) lawrencekstimes (dot) com. Read more of her work for the Times here. Check out her staff bio here.

More coverage: COVID-19 in K-12

Lawrence parents and teachers worry about risks, burden of omicron as return to school looms

Schools will be back in session Thursday despite record numbers of COVID-19 infections in Douglas County, leaving parents and teachers wondering how the district plans to keep people safe and buildings staffed.

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