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Planning for the unknown

Planning for the unknown

Kentucky School Advocate
June 2020

By Brenna R. Kelly
Staff writer

In mid-May, just after the final day of non-traditional instruction, Boyle County superintendent Mike LaFavers told his leadership team to rest up.

“You need to find some time in June just to recharge your batteries because when we get to July, it’s going to be crazy, just kind of like it has been since March, and it’s going to be like that for the foreseeable future,” he told the team.

Superintendents and school boards across the state are grappling with how to reopen Kentucky schools and keep students and staff safe from the coronavirus, which has infected more than 11,000 Kentuckians and killed nearly 500.

“My goal is for us to have our kids back in school in the fall,” Gov. Andy Beshear said in a recent news conference, noting that the upcoming school year “is going to have to look a little different.”

That may mean desks spaced 6 feet apart, students and teachers wearing masks, lunches in the classroom and other measures recommended by Kentucky Department of Public Health officials.

“If schools don’t do things differently and have an outbreak, you shut down that school,” Beshear said. “Those schools that are willing to embrace the things you need to do to prevent the spread are likely to be able to continue and not have interruptions.” 

Many districts are developing options such as a mix of in-person and online instruction, alternating schedules to reduce the number of students in a building and ways to accommodate families who don’t feel safe sending their children to school. 

Beyond instruction, districts are also figuring out the logistics such as how many thermometers and face masks to buy, how many desks can fit in a classroom 6 feet apart, how to serve food and implement new cleaning protocols. 

“You’re planning for so many possibilities and the planning has to be so detailed and so specific,” LaFavers (right) said. “And then you may have to pivot and operate between different ones of those plans throughout the year. So it’s going to be a very, very difficult late summer and fall for every school district in Kentucky.” 

‘Any way we can get back to school’
Kenton County Schools, like many districts, has formed a re-opening committee of parents, staff and board members to guide how it will resume instruction for its 15,000 students. 

“We have to plan for a lot of unknowns. A lot of alternative things that may happen, may not happen,” said Superintendent Henry Webb (left). The district is considering alternating schedules, a mix of remote and in-person learning or a combination.

“We need to have school in some form or fashion. While I’m concerned about the academic achievement of kids, I’m more concerned about the social emotional well-being of kids and staff, frankly,” he said. “So any way we can get back in school, we’re going to do it.” 

In addition to the district’s committee, the Northern Kentucky Cooperative for Educational Services has formed a regional committee of its 17 districts. Kenton County board chairman Carl Wicklund, who serves on the district and NKCES committees, said the regional approach makes sense in northern Kentucky where Boone, Kenton, Campbell and Grant counties are covered by one health department. 

Wicklund said he hopes the districts will be able to share solutions and resources to get students back in the classroom near the typical mid-August start date.

“I think if we do get back to school in August, the lost classroom time impact will be minimal,” he said. “If we go beyond August, it will become major.”

He also worries that after months at home, students will be more susceptible to all illnesses when they return. Large numbers of student absences could affect districts’ funding at a time when districts face increased costs due to the pandemic and are bracing for cuts in state funding. 

Wicklund predicts Kenton County’s healthy contingency fund will help the district weather the storm but, “I think we're going to need some help from the state or the federal government to make it happen,” he said. 

Managing the planning
Many districts have surveyed their parents about their feelings on sending their children back to school or plan to send out a survey this summer. Montgomery County Schools Superintendent Matt Thompson (right) said he plans to survey the parents of his nearly 5,000 students when he’s able to offer them firm options. 

“The challenge is when you’re looking at the big picture, there are so many unknowns and so many moving parts and so many variables and so many what ifs, that if you try to plan from the 30,000 foot view, it’s extremely overwhelming,” he said. 

To make it more manageable, Montgomery County’s reopening committee formed four subcommittees: academics, social emotional, special needs students, and safety, health and logistics, such as spacing desks and transportation.  

“As we’ve traditionally organized our schools, they’re really not built to easily manage social distancing,” Thompson said. “And it doesn’t mean we can’t make accommodations, but it’s going to offer some extreme challenges that every district’s going to have to work through.” 

One of the biggest challenges will be following the guidelines that recommend students not change classes. In many cases, 30 students in one high school classroom could go to 10 to 15 different classes for the next period, he said. Frustrating the situation is that even after all the planning, things could quickly change.

“Everybody wants an answer now and everybody wants to be able to say this is what it looks like,” he said. “I just don’t think anybody’s really able to do that because it’s so fluid. It’s just constantly moving.”

Frequent communication with families will be important so that they are prepared to choose when the district offers the options, he said.

Getting feedback
Boyle County Schools surveyed parents, staff and students in May, asking when the district should start school and whether to shorten or eliminate breaks. The district then held an online town hall to present four options: school as normal, all online instruction, alternating schedules or a hybrid opt-in plan in which some students come to school and some would receive online instruction. 

That plan would be different depending on whether 50 of the districts’ nearly 3,000 students stay home or if 500 choose to do so, LaFavers said. 

Nearly 300 people watched the town hall live on YouTube with many submitting questions such as will there be temperature checks. In addition to the online town hall, in an interview with the student-run Boyle County Sports Network, LaFavers asked students to send him their thoughts about going back to school.

“I think this is such an unprecedented time so you need to hear from as many of your stakeholders as possible,” he said.

Boyle County plans to announce its back to school plan on July 10, and if the hybrid option is selected, ask parents to let the district know if their child will be coming to school by July 17.

“Because you know, everybody in this situation we’re all in, each individual person has decisions they are going to have to make,” LaFavers (left) said. 

That gives the district five weeks until the planned start date of Aug. 12 to create detailed plans for the new year, whether it be deciding how many teachers to dedicate to online learning, scheduling students for alternating days or weeks of instruction, and figuring how to meet all of the public health recommendations. LaFavers knows this school year will be unlike any other, but he’s optimistic students will get back to learning this fall. 

“I think something will work. I’m confident about that,” he said. “I believe we can put something together that’s high quality for kids and that their families find acceptable. And I think it’s going to be a good school year. It’s going be a difficult school year for the people who are working in public education.” 

After 11 years as superintendent, Lafavers said he’s used to curveballs, but responding to a worldwide pandemic is something new to all Kentucky educators. There won’t be a one-size fits all solution, he said, meaning this school year may look different in every district across the state. 

“Every superintendent I talk to is putting a lot of time and effort into planning it,” he said. “Some things are just beyond your control, you just have to really focus on what it is as a school district that you do control and try to build plans that take advantage of those to the best of your ability.”
 
Related information:
What will it cost to reopen schools?
 
Officials offer guidance on transportation, masks

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