Kentucky School Advocate
In Conversation With features an interview between a leader or figure involved in public education and a representative of the Kentucky School Advocate. Since the coronavirus pandemic began, Dr. Connie Gayle White has become public health’s connection to K-12 public education. She spent 20 years as a physician in private practice before shifting to public health and is currently deputy commissioner for clinical affairs in the state Department of Public Health.
Q. You first joined the Department of Public Health in 2009 after a long career as an OB/GYN in Frankfort. What led you to want to work in public health?
A. At 55, I decided I might want to reinvent myself. That was when the opportunity in the Department of Public Health in the Division of Women’s Health became available. The job was to work with low-income women on breast and cervical cancer screenings and family planning and to work to prevent teen pregnancy. That, to me, sounded like a dream job.
Q. Because of budget cuts, you left that job after about a year. What did you do then?
A. I worked with advocacy groups as a women’s health consultant for the University of Kentucky College of Public Health for about a year. Then, the new state public health commissioner asked me to come back to be a deputy commissioner.
Q. You have become the face of public health for Kentucky’s education community. What had you been working on before the coronavirus pandemic hit the United States?
A. One is the opioid crisis. We call it the pandemic of pandemics. We’ve got a pandemic of hepatitis C and neonatal abstinence syndrome. We have foster care issues and we’re concerned with HIV and how it interacts with the opioid crisis. Any one of those things would tax any public health system and when you have all at the same time, it is quite overwhelming.
Another big initiative is the Kentucky Perinatal Quality Collaborative, where we bring together all the providers of obstetrics and pediatric services to newborns – the providers, the insurers and the birthing hospitals – and look at data for gaps in your state. Then we find evidence-based interventions that you can roll out across the state to improve outcomes for moms and babies. Our vision is Kentucky: A great place to have a baby and a great place to be born.
Q. You have spent every Tuesday afternoon for several weeks talking to superintendents and the Kentucky K-12 community during KDE’s Superintendents’ Webcasts. What have you learned about public education that you didn’t know prior to the pandemic?
A. I have learned an enormous amount about the complexities of running a school and the requirements for providing a public education. With Covid-19, there are extra measures to be taken for safety, questions about how those things will be paid for and thoughts about how to make things like contact tracing as quick and efficient and least disruptive as possible by planning on the front end.
I’ve learned a lot about ventilation systems. It’s very different when you have a new school versus an old school. I think we are going to find ventilation is going to be key in circulating this virus and getting it out of classrooms.
Q. The pandemic has placed added demands on your schedule. For example, you were on at least six Zoom calls with the education community during one week in late July. How do you keep up with the demands?
A. I don’t think I have any tips like that to share. In a busy medical practice, the decisions made in the exam room affect the patient and family; the decisions in this office affect people statewide. Being on these calls is extremely critical to ensure that I have a better understanding as we make these decisions.
Beyond the Zoom meetings, I’m on countless other calls. I have lots of conversations because I don’t want to say, ‘No, we can’t do that,’ if I don’t truly understand the unintended consequences of those decisions. So, we have spent a lot of time together and tried to make sure that what we have said is smart and strategic with a safety focus. As Dr. Stack has said, everything that we are doing is an inconvenience, but we are trying to think about how can we make it the least inconvenient.
Q. You worked closely with the Kentucky Department of Education to draft the Healthy at School guidelines for going back to school. Are there areas where public health had to compromise to make implementing the guidelines easier for school districts?
A. Yes, one area is Plexiglas dividers that would help separate kids. That conversation hasn’t happened yet but it is going to. My team said, ‘What if they aren’t secured on the table, what if they fall on kids, what if kids fall into one and there’s a sharp corner and they put an eye out.’ That one really got me, and so I said, ‘No Plexiglas.’ But we’ve gotten a lot of pushback on that. People have said, ‘We could do more with the kids.’ They have sent us prototypes and we have talked to the state fire marshal and I think we are going to be more flexible on that. So, if you want to put Plexiglas up and you make sure it has rounded edges and it is secure on the table and wipe the panels down, it is OK.
However, now people are thinking that if we have kids sitting at a table separated by Plexiglas, they don’t have to wear masks. But no, Plexiglas is not going to substitute for a mask.
Social distancing on buses is another example. Originally the CDC said 6 feet apart on the bus. Then someone pointed out that you’d only have five people on the bus; nobody can do that. So if you ride the bus, you have to wear a mask because we want everyone 6 feet apart and if you can’t be 6 feet apart you have to wear a mask. They asked, ‘What if you don’t want to wear a mask on the bus?’ and I said, ‘Then you don’t ride the bus.’
Q. The state’s guidance says that masks will be required for students when they cannot be spaced 6 feet apart in a classroom. Is it OK for students to remove their masks if they are 6 feet apart?
A. They can take their masks down if they are 6 feet apart and nobody is moving around the room, but if somebody gets up to sharpen their pencil or go to the trash can, masks go back on.
If there is social distancing, the mask can be down for a break. So, for example, if kids are playing outside at recess away from others, they can take it down.
Q. Is there any way to know how long schools will have to operate differently because of the pandemic?
A. Until the pandemic is over; until we can get vaccination and some immunity. It is not until we get a vaccine because as they say, ‘Vaccines don’t work unless you get a vaccination.’ Once we get a safe and effective vaccine and have enough of it produced, we will have a plan for who gets the vaccine first. We are already working on it.
Q. The states’ two largest school districts decided to start school online and the governor asked districts planning in-person classes in early August to instead start with virtual learning or delay going back. Districts have spent all summer creating plans that follow the Healthy at School requirement, so will the plans still be needed if students can return to the classroom later this fall or in winter?
A. If the numbers start to go down and districts feel it is safe to go back to school but we haven’t gotten a good number of people vaccinated yet, they are going to need these plans to come back to school. You are not going to open up the doors like you did in 2019. It must be done gradually and safely, so these plans will be critical and they are going to be critical for the next pandemic whenever we have it, which could be in our lifetime.
I could be wrong, but I would be very surprised if the whole school year is virtual. If we can do masking and social distancing and use public health intervention tools and add vaccination to that, I expect people will start to feel comfortable by second semester to start opening schools, if not sooner, but I have no way to predict that. Whenever the time comes to start reopening schools, they’ve already got their plans. They don’t have to wring their hands. They just pull it out of that top desk drawer and say, ‘OK, here we go.’
Q. Gov. Beshear often says we will get through this together. How can school board members, administrators, teachers and other school staff help Kentuckians get through the pandemic?
A. Many positive changes in society have started in our school systems, from women’s education and voting rights to desegregation. We have looked to public education as a way to improve social norms in this country, and this pandemic response is another place. School leaders need to be the example and lead with social distancing and masking. Getting our communities safer will allow our schools to reopen sooner.
The community looks to their school board as leaders. If you decide to have 47 people over for a barbecue with no masks and no social distancing, they will see that too. That is leading in the wrong direction.