Kansas school districts should prepare students for the possibility of teachers dying

Karen Medhi in Peru. (Submitted by the Medhi family)

The Kansas Reflector welcomes opinion pieces from writers who share our goal of widening the conversation about how public policies affect the day-to-day lives of people throughout our state. Matthew Grobe is a radio talk show producer in Kansas City.

During the recent discussion at the Kansas Board of Education about local school districts reopening this fall, an important issue was absent from the conversation. How will students be affected if their teacher dies from COVID-19?

I know what it feels like when a teacher dies in the middle of a semester.

Growing up in Kansas, I felt like my family was more well off than a lot of other people in the Lenexa area. I spent a lot of my childhood thinking I lived a typical suburban lifestyle by playing in Johnson County kids’ leagues and exploring Shawnee Mission Park with my neighbor. The older I became, though, the more I noticed how I was always talking fast and had a hard time voicing my thoughts. Nobody guessed I needed extra help.

As I progressed through school, I started speech therapy, which helped a lot but not enough. My parents and school administrators noticed I was not where I should be for my grade level.

They made the difficult decision to pull me out of the Shawnee Mission School District and into Horizon Academy in Roeland Park, a private school that specializes in helping students with learning disabilities. There, the smaller class sizes and extra attention from teachers helped me get back to where I needed to be.

Matthew Grobe as a young child at Sar-Ko-Par Trails Park in Lenexa. (Submitted by Matthew Grobe)

When it was time for high school, we looked at private schools in Kansas and Missouri before deciding on Kansas City Academy in Kansas City, Missouri.

The school was a bit of a commute from Lenexa, but it was the right place for me. One of the teachers was Karen Medhi, who taught nearly every math class.

We called our teachers by their first names. My first experience with Karen was my sophomore year geometry class. She taught almost every student in one way or another, and she really cared about her students and the school. Karen always made time to help students, even if it inconvenienced her. She was a stay-at-home mother to her two sons, Robby and Neiloy, before starting at Kansas City Academy. Karen was passionate about learning.

“She was always interested in broadening the things she knew,” Neiloy recently said about his mom.

He went to Kansas City Academy, too, but she never had him as a student.

“She still had time to listen to me talk about what I had learned in my class that I was taking,” he said. “She was somebody you could bounce ideas off of.”

In my junior year, I took Karen’s Algebra II class. About halfway through the first semester, she died of a brain aneurysm.

“It was a shock. She was a healthy person,” Neiloy said. “There is no family history suggesting she would have to watch out for certain health issues.”

It wasn’t just a shock to her family — it was a shock to the community. As her fellow teachers and students tried to come to terms with her passing, a substitute was needed to fill in. Luckily, her husband was a professor at University of Missouri-Kansas City, so he and two of his students stepped in until they could find a permanent replacement.

Seeing different teachers each class didn’t help my learning disabilities. It took a lot of extra tutoring and counseling, while I was also trying to cope with Karen’s passing. I never had someone that close die. She was a fantastic person who was loved and cherished by many, but I was scared to go to any funeral because I wasn’t ready to confront death at that point.

I had a group of teachers and classmates that helped me through that year. It took time, but eventually I was able to catch up and pass the class. What about the family that cannot afford to take those extra steps?

In this time of COVID-19, will schools be able to deal with struggling students while also offering grief counseling to those who need it? Will students be able to emotionally and physically recover after losing a trusted teacher, guidance counselor or mentor to COVID-19? Especially if it could have been prevented?

Every child will have to process the loss in their own way. We need to do what is best for the community as a whole. I was lucky, but there will be plenty of families across Kansas that will not be. Having a teacher die could really change a student’s direction in life.

If saving one immunocompromised teacher is all that online classes will do, it will be worth it.