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Lee's Summit Teachers Fear For Their Safety As Return To Classrooms Looms

Lee's Summit Superintendent David Buck visits a summer school classroom. Buck took over the district July 1 after four tumultuous years of clashes between the school board and the two previous superintendents.
Lee's Summit R-7 School District
Lee's Summit Superintendent David Buck visits a summer school classroom. Buck took over the district July 1 after four tumultuous years of clashes between the school board and the two previous superintendents.

Teachers in Lee's Summit say their safety isn’t being considered as schools commit to bringing students back for in-person learning.

They feel like they’ve been left out of conversations about when and how to reopen.

“I have felt a lot of anxiety,” said Bess Hayles, a French teacher at Lee’s Summit High School. “There was a week where I was having insomnia, just feeling very out of control, like people are going to be making a decision that is going to impact my life, and I have absolutely no control over that decision.”

Amplifying Hayles’ anxiety is the fact that Lee’s Summit has a new superintendent, David Buck, its third in four years. The district had to pay its last two leaders a total of $1.2 million after abrupt departures brought on by clashes with the school board.

Now it’s up to Buck, who came from tiny Wright City, Missouri, to reopen a district that’s 10 times the size. He doesn’t have the backing of teachers yet, and many felt like the newsletter he sent out last week minimized their concerns.

“The local health department has seen our summer school plan and allowed it,” Buck wrote. “Twelve hundred kids attended summer school, and masks were not the big fight we expected. It was rather normal.”

Several teachers told KCUR they felt it was inappropriate of Superintendent David Buck to open a letter about reopening schools with trivia.
Lee's Summit R-7 School District
Several teachers told KCUR they felt it was inappropriate of Superintendent David Buck to open a letter about reopening schools with trivia.

Buck’s long note, packed with anecdotes and riddled with typos, was a departure from the polished communications that were the norm under the previous administration. Terry Durnell, a broadcast teacher at Lee’s Summit North High School, said she appreciated Buck’s candor.

“That’s more information in that one email than I feel like we've gotten from the last two superintendents and the two interims at one time,” Durnell said. “I felt he was genuine with what he was writing and that this has been a struggle for him as well.”

But Durnell also has concerns that no one’s addressed yet. She teaches in a small, interior classroom with no windows to open for fresh air. All day long, newspaper, yearbook and broadcast students rotate through a shared computer lab that’s connected to her classroom.

Right now the plan is to buy plexiglass shields and keyboard covers, but Durnell doesn’t think that’s enough to slow the spread of an airborne virus.

“The response was, ‘We have really creative teachers.’ You know, essentially, we’ll figure it out,” Durnell said. “Well, we can’t move stone. And if you have 25 or 30 kids in a classroom, you can’t even remotely social distance.”

In his note, Buck wrote that the American Academy of Pediatrics supports a return to school, which is true. But by the time the newsletter went out to Lee’s Summit teachers, pediatricians had walked back an earlier statement that said kids needed to be in classrooms, after President Trump started talking about it like a mandate.

“Returning to school is important for the healthy development and well-being of children, but we must pursue re-opening in a way that is safe for all students, teachers and staff. Science should drive decision-making on safely reopening schools,” the AAP said in a joint statement with three national education organizations. “Public health agencies must make recommendations based on evidence, not politics.”

There’s now evidence that older children – including those in middle and high school – are as likely as adults to spread the coronavirus.

“Central office is putting a lot of emphasis on what is best for students, which obviously should be No. 1, but they are completely forgetting about teachers,” said Hayles, the LSW French teacher. “Nothing that we’ve seen has even recognized all of the adults that are going into the school. We have a lot of teachers who are immunocompromised. We have a lot of teachers who go home to family members who cannot get sick.”

Part of the pressure to reopen schools is coming from parents who need to go back to work. Online schooling wasn’t ideal for most families, and 85% of Lee’s Summit families who’ve already expressed a preference for next year want in-person learning, per Buck’s note to teachers.

The morning after Buck’s newsletter went out, he told KCUR’s Steve Kraske that kids learn best in school.

“Schools form a safety net,” he said. “For young kids that are not self-directed as much, there’s definitely a developmental piece, too. They’re losing out a lot.”

Buck said that he was as confident “as Hy-Vee is opening their doors and letting anyone in” about reopening schools next month.

“We’re going to do everything we can to mitigate the chances. Two hundred million people are going to work right now. We’re going to do everything we can,” he said.

A spokeswoman for the Lee’s Summit School District emphasized that the plans that have been shared will continue to evolve based on recommendations from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, the Jackson County Health Department, the Missouri Department of Health and Senior Services and the Missouri Department of Elementary and Secondary Education.

“LSR7 has no approved reopening plan for the 2020-21 school year,” Katy Bergan wrote in an email. “We shared three tentative models with our Board of Education in a work session on July 16, and have stated both publicly and directly with families and staff that we are continuing to study evolving guidance and the COVID-19 landscape.

“Dr. Buck’s message briefly cites the AAP’s recommendation that in-person instruction is vital for students, and references a goal of having students learn in our school buildings, and those goals are still reflected in AAP guidance. He also referenced the importance of relying on guidance and science, and being flexible to changing scenarios.”

In his message, Buck thanked teachers for being “superheroes” who answered the call to serve students.

“We will not have the perfect plan,” he wrote. “USPS, your local bank, the HVAC company you use, the car manufacturer down the interstate, nor any entity has the perfect plan. We will serve our students in the best manner that we can. We will give our parents the grace and patience they need as they make decisions they have never been asked to before. We will continue to be flexible and student-centered. It is our charge. It is our call. I thank you each for being part of that call.”

Elle Moxley covered education for KCUR.
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