Going back into the classroom five days per week for four hours a day is too little, too late.
That’s the message delivered to the Lawrence Township Public Schools Board of Education by parents and students at the school board’s April 21 meeting.
Many students have been attending school on the hybrid plan, which combines in-person instruction and remote instruction, while other students have opted for fully remote learning.
A group of parents banded together earlier this month to create the Return to Learn Facebook group, which has pushed for returning students to the classroom on a full-time basis – five days per week, seven hours per day.
An online petition at www.change.org also has been circulating – signed by more than 200 people – that calls on the Lawrence public school district to immediately bring students back into school for full-time, in-person instruction, while also preserving the remote option for those who have chosen it.
But school district officials are sticking to the plan to bring students into the classroom for a few hours a day in the morning, and then to provide remote instruction in the afternoon. There is no change for students who have chosen the full remote option.
The reasons for a half-day of school, which excludes serving lunch, were outlined by Superintendent of Schools Ross Kasun at the April 21 school board meeting.
Those reasons range from having already created a “re-entry plan” that meets the needs of all students, to the difficulties in ensuring adequate space, social distancing, supervision and cleaning if the district provides lunch and a full day of in-person instruction.
The re-entry plan created a schedule to meet the needs of all students – whether hybrid or fully remote, Kasun said. The plan was built to keep students together with their teachers as a group of learners.
“We believe it is critical not to change teachers and move learners when relationships have been formed,” he said.
Noting that 41% of students have opted for fully remote learning, Kasun said the district must provide the same learning opportunities for them as it does for students who are learning in-person, in the classroom.
In most cases, to go back to a full day of in-person instruction would “completely disrupt and make significant changes for the remote cohort,” he said.
Being so close to the end of the school year, Kasun said this is not the time to disrupt schedules and make staff changes while potentially increasing the health risks for students and staff from exposure to COVID-19.
“It is just not practical or wise to do it now,” Kasun said.
Some parents who attended the meeting, however, strongly disagreed.
Michael Horan, a former school board member and the co-founder of the Return to Learn Facebook group, said the school district should take “strong, firm actions” to get the students back into the classroom full-time.
Horan said he started the online petition that calls for the district to implement full-time in-person learning now and to prepare a plan for the same in time for the 2021-2022 school year.
Horan told the school board that he wants the board to direct Kasun to come up with a definitive plan to bring students back into the classroom sooner than later. He reminded the school board that its role is not to manage the school district, but to set the vision and direction for the district.
Amy Davis, who is also a co-founder of the Facebook group, said federal and state officials have said it is safe to fully re-open the schools. Safety measures can be taken to ensure students’ and teachers’ safety, she said.
“The risk (of exposure to COVID-19) is minuscule and when I weigh that minuscule risk with the benefit of my children receiving a better in-person quality education and preserving their mental health and overall well-being, I choose to have my children in school,” Davis said.
Davis said that while she believes the school board members care about the children, not fully re-opening the schools for students who want it is “a very bad idea.”
Noting that since fewer than half of the school board members have children enrolled in the district schools, she questioned whether they were “well positioned to make an informed decision about what is truly in the best interests” of the students.
“I fear (that) without understanding as a current LTPS parent what our children’s experiences have been and currently are in Lawrence, you cannot fully appreciate the negative impacts we have faced,” Davis said.
Pointing out that it has been more than 400 days since students have been in school full-time, Davis told the school board that “you are running out of excuses and we are running out of time. Do the right thing and allow our students to return to learn in person five full days immediately.”
Two Lawrence High School students – senior Mahek Malik and junior Jimmy Kildea – also urged the school board to allow the return of full-time in-person instruction, pointing to the impact that school closure has had on their mental health and on their friends’ mental health.
“I just know for a fact that doing the same thing every day (remote learning), not seeing people of your own age is horrible. It’s the worst school experience you could ever have,” Mahek said.
“My friends are not interested in school (and) their mental health has deteriorated,” she told the school board.
The seniors want their senior year back, she said. They don’t want a repeat of last year’s experiences for the seniors – the cancelation of the senior prom, a virtual graduation ceremony instead of an in-person ceremony, and the cancelation of Project Graduation, which is the after-graduation celebration.
Jimmy said the students have lost “really important things,” such as the high school prom and the eighth-grade moving-on ceremony.
“You are taking away more than just the friendships that people make, and actual education. You are also taking away memories of a whole year of our life. I hope to go back to school as soon as possible,” Jimmy said.
School board president Kevin Van Hise replied that it was “unfair” to question school board members who do not have children enrolled in the school district. The school board members represent everyone in the community, he said.
School board members have been working on a plan to get the students back into the classroom, but the district is facing significant limitations, Van Hise said. Every school district is unique, and the Lawrence school district is trying to “problem-solve,” he said.
“We hear you and we actually agree” that students should be back in school full-time, but the district is doing what is best for the students, Van Hise said.