Lawrence schools to begin hybrid learning

School board votes after heated meeting

Lawrence Public Schools students will soon have the option to attend in-person classes through a hybrid learning model — returning to the classroom for the first time since March. 

After an intense discussion, the USD 497 Board of Education voted Monday to begin hybrid learning on Oct. 19. The seven-hour meeting ended in a 4-3 vote.

The Together Again: Fall 2020 Reopening task force outlined non-instructional and instructional expectations and procedures. 

While students have the option to stay in fully online classes, the current instructional plan sees both primary and secondary students using an AB/AB model. This means that half of the student body will attend classes in person on Monday and Thursday, and the other half will attend on Tuesday and Friday. 

Students will continue online learning on the days they are not in the building, and individual teachers will decide if both groups will follow the same instruction each day.

High schools will begin operating on a block schedule. This means that students will attend odd hour classes on Monday and Tuesday, all classes on Wednesday and even hour classes on Thursday and Friday. Zero hour will meet each day. 

Non-instructional procedures covered transportation, arrival and dismissal, meals and recess. Students will be required to wear a mask at all times and maintain a six-foot distance from others. Cleaning procedures will be finalized once the hybrid model is fully outlined. 

Parents, staff members and community members provided commentary during the meeting, which adjourned just after midnight Tuesday. Most urged the board to extend online learning, citing concerns for the health of staff and the well-being of students.

“Having spent a career supporting students with significant learning needs, I am also very concerned about the difficulties with delivering specialized instruction within the remote learning model,” retired school psychologist Virginia Ruark Wessels said. “I believe, however, that replacing the remote learning model with a hybrid model at this time will hinder the mental [and] emotional well-being and learning of our students.”

Tony Barron, executive director of facilities and operations, assured the board that the district’s cleaning procedures will be safe. He also broke down how custodial staff would manage their time to clean the buildings each day. 

When asked if the number of custodians would be able to keep up with the new cleaning demands, Barron avoided directly answering, saying, “We could always use more staff.” 

“We’re doing our best with… our capital investments to make life a little less strenuous on our custodial staff,” Barron said.

Those who encouraged the board to greenlight the move to hybrid cited concerns about the amount of screentime students experience every day and negative effects from a lack of social interaction during online learning.

Eventually, Board President Kelly Jones began discussion of adjourning the meeting and reconvening after the district had an opportunity to further develop plans. 

Superintendent Anthony Lewis responded that he was “totally floored” by the lack of support for the hybrid plan and expressed concerns that the board was not keeping the best interest of students in mind. 

Jones then initiated the vote. 

Several board members expressed concern with the task force’s level of planning. G.R. Gordon-Ross said that while he supported hybrid learning, he wasn’t comfortable with the current plan and lack of support from staff. 

“I think staff needs time to digest and I think we, as board members and as a district, need to do our due diligence,” Gordon-Ross said.

Representatives from both Lawrence Education Association and the paraeducator union PAL-CWA asked the board to extend online learning. LEA interim President Lindsay Buck reported that 70% of educators have said in a weekly survey that they prefer online only classes.

Melissa Johnson, a member of the board and a teacher in Kansas City, was confident teachers will be able to adapt and overcome, regardless of their opinion on the decision. 

Board member Erica Hill agreed.

“I don’t know if hybrid is the right choice; I do know remote is not the right choice,” Hill said.