Lawrence educators’ teachable moment inspired by move to hybrid instruction

By: - October 5, 2020 3:55 pm

Lawrence elementary music teacher Emily Boedeker participated Monday in a teach-in at district headquarterrs to express concern about the scheduled Oct. 19 resumption of in-person class instruction despite the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic. (Tim Carpenter/Kansas Reflector)

LAWRENCE — Music educator Emily Boedeker will soon be responsible for classroom instruction of 300 students at two elementary schools when the Lawrence district transitions from fully remote learning to a hybrid model combining in-person and online teaching.

She joined teachers, paraprofessionals and other employees Monday outside the district’s administration building for an online teach-in to highlight apprehension about initiation of the hybrid strategy on Oct. 19. They expressed concern in interviews about accelerating local spread of COVID-19, failing to meet educational needs of a diverse student population and dealing with children required to follow public health mandates on masks, sanitation and social distancing.

“We need to be able to do things safely for our teachers and our students,” Boedeker said. “What’s important to remember is there are teachers in our buildings that teach every student. Specialist teachers — library, art, music, PE. Starting October 19, I will be … pushing into every teachers’ classroom on a cart.”

To limit dispersion of the coronavirus, Boedeker said, students at Pickney and Woodlawn elementary schools will be prohibited from singing together or playing recorders due to the risk of aspirating the virus. She said the online approach relied on since March hadn’t been without issues because of shortcomings of internet connections and absence of human contact, but avoiding mass gatherings in schools has proven effective in deterring movement of the virus.

Lori Morris, left, and Pam Mohler, who work as special education paraprofessionals in the Lawrence school district, worry return to in-school instruction despite COVID-19 may lead to acute staffing shortages and fail to meet needs of students with disabilities. (Tim Carpenter/Kansas Reflector)
Lori Morris, left, and Pam Mohler, who work as special education paraprofessionals in the Lawrence school district, worry return to in-school instruction despite COVID-19 may lead to acute staffing shortages and fail to meet needs of students with disabilities. (Tim Carpenter/Kansas Reflector)

On Sept. 29, the Lawrence school board conclued seven hours of discussion by voting 4-3 to approve plans for converting to hybrid instruction. A majority of the board also directed district administrators to develop a phased plan for resumption of fully in-person learning.

“This path is going to require a new set of approaches to learning. It will require a different mindset,” said Anthony Lewis, the Lawrence district’s superintendent. “I stand ready to support all of our building leaders and every single educator in responding to this unprecedented challenge that is before us and that I really believe is a huge opportunity for us.”

The superintendent expressed concern about a COVID-19 academic slide and attendance data showing disproportionately higher absence rates among students of color, low-income students, and other at-risk student groups. He said the district experienced a 93% increase in the number of families transferring children from the district to home schooling or into public or private schools.

The Lawrence district’s hybrid plan calls for all students to learn remotely on Wednesdays. They are to attend school buildings on an alternative schedule of Monday and Thursday classes or Tuesday and Friday classes. In July, the school board decided to start the academic year Sept. 8 with six weeks of remote learning. A district task force recommended transition to a hybrid model.

Lindsay Buck, interim president of the Lawrence Education Association, told the school board a survey of the districts educators revealed 70% choose the remote learning option as their first choice for teaching.

“A vote to transition to hybrid means that you are putting the lives of educators and scholars at risk,” Buck said.

The teach-in was organized by the Lawrence Education Association and the Paraeducator Association of Lawrence. Both union organizations recommended the district delay start of in-class intruction until after the winter break.

Lawrence public school district educators engaged Monday in an outdoor teaech-in at the district's administrative offices to elevate concern about plans to resume in-school, in-person instruction Oct. 19 despite the sustained COVID-19 pandemic. (Tim Carpenter/Kansas Reflector)
Lawrence public school district educators engaged Monday in an outdoor teach-in at the district’s administrative offices to elevate concern about plans to resume in-school, in-person instruction Oct. 19 despite the sustained COVID-19 pandemic. (Tim Carpenter/Kansas Reflector)

“I’m here in solidarity,” said Liz Crickard, a social worker at Free State High School who believes mental health services could be better delivered outside schools during the pandemic. “Returning to buildings and trying to access those services in very small spaces that people are coming in and out of all day, I have a lot of questions and concerns about that.”

Lori Morris and Pam Mohler, who work as special education paraprofessionals at Prairie Park Elementary, said they weren’t convinced the district had sufficient staff to work through a pandemic slicing into the traditional flu season.

Indeed, the Lawrence district’s attorney said there would be a shortage of substitute teachers because many retired educators who often take on substitute duties weren’t interested in teaching remotely or accepting substitute classroom positions.

Morris also said some students with disabilities would have difficulty keeping a mask on in school. There are nonverbal special-needs students who need to read lips or facial expressions of teachers also covered by a mask mandate, she said.

“The most affected, marginalized group of students are these special ed kids,” Mohler said. “The least amount of thought has been put into a plan for them. There’s not a one-size-fits-all. Everybody wants the kids to come back. That’s not the problem. There’s too much of a rush and not enough thought put into what’s going to happen here.”

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Tim Carpenter
Tim Carpenter

Tim Carpenter has reported on Kansas for 35 years. He covered the Capitol for 16 years at the Topeka Capital-Journal and previously worked for the Lawrence Journal-World and United Press International. He has been recognized for investigative reporting on Kansas government and politics. He won the Kansas Press Association's Victor Murdock Award six times. The William Allen White Foundation honored him four times with its Burton Marvin News Enterprise Award. The Kansas City Press Club twice presented him its Journalist of the Year Award and more recently its Lifetime Achievement Award. He earned an agriculture degree at Kansas State University and grew up on a small dairy and beef cattle farm in Missouri. He is an amateur woodworker and drives Studebaker cars.

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