OPINION: I’m proud of my dad for putting his job on the line in school reopening dispute

Teacher+Kelly+Barker+slides+with+Zora+Lotton-Barker+when+she+was+a+toddler.+Zora%2C+now+co+editor-in-chief+of+The+Budget%2C+writes+about+her+admiration+of+her+father.

Courtesy of Zora Lotton-Barker

Teacher Kelly Barker slides with Zora Lotton-Barker when she was a toddler. Zora, now co editor-in-chief of The Budget, writes about her admiration of her father.

By Zora Lotton-Barker, Lawrence High School

When my dad announced to school board members and administrators that he would quit his job over safety concerns on Thursday night, I was as shocked as anyone.

For as long as I can remember my dad has been my hero. Some of my earliest memories consist of begging him to tell me history stories rather than reading me a book. He had this unique ability to make me care about people who lived hundreds of years before I did and to help me understand why they were so important for me to learn about.

He didn’t just do this for me however, he did this for every one of the students who walked into his classroom and has continued to do so even as we have transitioned to an online format. He has hundreds of former students who have been changed by having him in class, and he has been the inspiration to several future teachers. Even now, he calls one of his former students every week to catch up with him and give him advice. That former student is probably my dad’s best friend.

But in the aftermath of the school board’s decision to move to a hybrid model on Monday, the teachers’ union LEA, or the Lawrence Education Association, met with administrators and board members to address grievances.

As a member of the negotiating team representing the union, my father, Kelly Barker, was tasked with giving the statement representing LEA at the beginning of the meeting. He has been teaching with the district for 25 years, and has been at Liberty Memorial Central Middle School for the past four years. 

In his statement, Barker spoke about the decision to move to hybrid at Monday’s board meeting, and what it meant for the relationship between teachers and the administration.

“As the organizations that represent the educators and paraprofessionals of the Lawrence Public Schools we were proud that the board allowed us to survey our membership and present our position to the board as they made this important decision,” Barker said. “And then at the end of the meeting we were shocked when that information was dismissed. We told you what our interests were, and a board member said she knew what our interests were better than we knew them as the association.”

Barker noted that teachers would be the most affected when COVID-19 inevitably spreads throughout Lawrence Public Schools, citing a recent study done in India on the effects of COVID-19 on adults and children which was reported in The New York Times.

“Recently, the largest study of COVID to be done so far was released. It had two important findings, COVID affects children and adults differently, COVID is far less severe in children, there are cases with fatalities but on the whole, when looked at on the large scale, the disease is far more severe in adults than children,” Barker said. “But the second finding is one we should be concerned with: that same study found that children act as superspreaders to adults. The issue isn’t, is it dangerous for the children? The issue is it is deadly for the adults.”

He also spoke about misconceptions promoted during the Monday night meeting and clarified that teachers wanted to return to school, but only when it was safe to do so.

“We told you all summer and fall, consistently, that 70 percent of our members do not feel safe coming back to work in person. That was turned into 70 percent who don’t want to come back, and they need to get over it. We thought we had communicated a different message to you, so I am going to try and say it as clearly as possible: 100 percent of our members want to come back. 100 percent of our members want to teach kids in the format that we are used to…But they want to see the plan, give input to the plan, make changes to it to fit the unique needs of their building and staff and adequate time to practice and prepare for the new safety procedures that will be in place and they want to make sure that teaching in the new model doesn’t consume them in a fire of teacher burnout.”

It was after this speech that my father announced that if the board did not take teachers’ opinions into consideration, he would seek work in a different district at the end of the year. 

I was privileged to have him as my eighth grade American history teacher, but most of all I am privileged to have him as a parent. 

I don’t know what is going to happen if my dad quits his job. I don’t know what that will mean for our family financially — especially because both of my parents are teachers in the district and make far less than they deserve.

At the same time, I know that I don’t want to lose one of my parents to COVID-19 because they were required to teach in an unsafe environment. I don’t want my father, one of the primary caregivers to my  recently-widowed grandmother, who is 76, to have to stop visiting her in order to keep her safe. 

Our teachers deserve better than what the school board gave them Monday night.

They deserve to enter into their workplace without fearing for their lives or the lives of their students. They deserve to address their grievances and have their employers listen to them.

I’m not saying that the district made the wrong decision in choosing to go to a hybrid model, but I am saying that they went about it the wrong way. My dad might be one of the first teachers to quit over this issue, but he certainly won’t be the last. And some might not wait until the end of the year to seek a different school district.

This story was originally published on The Budget on October 2, 2020.