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Back to school?

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Summer surge shifts schools’ reopening plans

Kentucky School Advocate
August 2020

By Brenna R. Kelly
Staff writer

Months of planning, measuring, buying and rethinking every facet of school operation from instruction to transportation collided with a summer surge of coronavirus cases – just weeks before Kentucky school districts prepared to put their back-to-school plans into action.

The spike in cases across the state prompted Gov. Andy Beshear on Aug. 10 to make what he called a “tough but necessary” recommendation that all Kentucky school districts delay in-person instruction until at least Sept. 28.

“We do not have control over this virus, and to send tens of thousands of our kids back into in-person classes when we don't have control of this virus isn’t the right thing to do for our kids,” he said. “It’s not the right thing to do for their faculty and it’s not the right thing to recommend as governor.”

The delay, Beshear said, would allow districts to have a better chance of staying open once in-person instruction finally began, unlike some states where schools quickly closed after seeing cases multiply soon after opening.

“I’m for getting our kids safely back into in-person classes, even during this pandemic. It’s just getting them back at the height of the pandemic, I think would be irresponsible,” he said.

The surge that began in mid-July and continued through early August, threw into flux what already promised to be an unusual and uncertain start to the new year school.

At Woodfill Elementary, teachers were able to space desks 6 feet apart. When in-person classes begin, students will be allowed to remove their masks when seated and a teacher is not within 6 feet. Photo provided by Fort Thomas Ind. 
Before the governor’s recommendation, 27 districts had already decided to start the school year with all-virtual instruction – though some had hoped to move to in-person classes in early September.Most districts, however, had held out hope that a statewide mask mandate and other efforts to lessen the spread would allow them to start the year with at least partial in-person instruction in late August or early September.

“We felt it was important to try to have our kids physically in school as many days as possible,” said Mike Borchers, superintendent of Ludlow Independent, which had planned to bring students back four days a week with half of the students attending in the morning and half in the afternoon, but switched to online instruction at the governor’s request. “I think educators across the country and families have realized that you can't replace the personal contact.”

Borchers and all Kentucky superintendents knew that if cases continued to rise they would be asked to switch to distance learning and all had plans to teach students through non-traditional instruction or virtual academies.

Interim Commissioner Kevin Brown noted that after the quick switch to virtual learning in March, districts have been working on strengthening their plans for virtual instruction.

“I believe Kentucky was in a good place last semester compared to other states, but I believe we’re even better this semester with non-traditional instruction based upon a lot of hard work that has gone into improving that by school districts over the summer,” he said.  

Planning for all virtual
As cases started to spike in mid-July, the boards of the state’s two largest school districts, Fayette and Jefferson which have more than 135,000 students, decided to start the school year online.  

“We know that the overwhelming majority, when it is safe, want to see a plan to get our students safely back in school and that is what we are working for,” Fayette County board chairwoman Stephanie Spires (left) said at a July 23 meeting in which the board voted to postpone in-person classes.

Superintendent Manny Caulk (right), who recommended the all-virtual start, noted that “there appears to be a summer surge.” The day after the vote, Fayette county saw 100 new cases, which was a record for the pandemic.“As long as our case curve is this high, we’re going to be in non-traditional instruction,” Caulk said.

Six of the seven Jefferson County board members said before a July 21 vote that they would endorse starting the school year with online learning. Superintendent Marty Pollio agreed and made a recommendation to start the year with at least six weeks of virtual instruction.

“I am in alignment with our board members,” Pollio said at a July 15 press conference announcing his recommendation. “There are still so many unknowns with this virus right now for both children and adults.”

Pollio, who was asked whether his district’s decision would have a cascading effect, said he had talked to many of the state’s superintendents but noted that each district had to decide what’s best for their community.

“We all want our kids to learn and achieve, there is not a superintendent out there that doesn’t want that,” he said. “But we also want kids to be safe, staff to be safe and families to be safe.”

Before the first day of school, Fort Thomas Independent Schools held a practice run with students and teachers at the district’s Woodfill Elementary to see how the safety guidelines would work. Photo provided by Fort Thomas Ind. 
Planning for in-person

Even before the 2019-20 school year had ended, districts were planning for a year unlike any other. Over the summer, districts formed re-entry committees, spent thousands of dollars on cleaning supplies and personal protective equipment. Administrators measured space between desks and spent countless hours figuring out how to best meet the guidelines in the state’s 25-page Heathy at School plan.

By mid-July every district had a plan for how to go back to school. The plans were as varied as the state’s school districts. Some included five-day-a-week instruction, others opted for hybrid models with students attending in person two to three days a week, and most allowed families to choose all online instruction.

And even before the governor’s request, some districts had to adjust their plans. On July 31, both Kenton County and Oldham County schools announced they would use rotating schedules for older students after initially opting for five-day-a-week instruction.

Fort Thomas Independent, which was planning five-day-a-week instruction, held practice runs. On July 16, at the district’s Woodfill Elementary, staff, teachers and students held reopening simulations to see how the new safety procedures would actually work when classes resume.

The northern Kentucky district plans to reduce class sizes, adjust the schedules of the middle and high school and stagger arrival times based on students’ last names.

“We were able to meet the safety requirements through creative scheduling, new uses of space, and innovative programming in order to keep student cohorts small and 6-foot distanced,” Superintendent Karen Cheser (left) said in a letter to families. The district will now begin with online instruction on Aug. 31.Just eight miles away, Ludlow Independent had been planning for students to return in-person on Aug. 26 with half of the students reporting in the morning and half in the afternoon Monday through Thursday. All students were to learn from home on Fridays.

“I think every educator would prefer to have kids in five days a week, in the whole school building with the kids everywhere, but with the safety concerns right now, it's just such a tough thing,” Borchers said.

The split schedule was possible because most of the district’s nearly 900 students walk, so the district doesn’t have to worry about two bus runs, Borchers (right) said. Elementary students would stay in their classrooms and older school students would have three periods a day.“That was the big goal, to get our kids in. And it helps with all the other things such as mental health and counseling and we felt getting them in four days a week would allow any of our students with special needs to be able to have those needs addressed,” he said.

The district also planned to provide meals for both groups of students and send students home with food. Custodians planned to disinfect the schools between the morning and afternoon groups.

The district developed three plans – all in-person, the hybrid schedule and an all virtual option in which teachers would use Google Classroom to reach students.

“We want kids in school. I want to see our kids but I also want to make sure it’s safe for our teachers and make it safe for our kids, so we’ll follow all the guidelines we need to do,” Borchers said.

All Fort Thomas Independent students will have their temperatures taken as they enter the building each morning. Photo provided by Fort Thomas Ind.  
A quick switch, delayed starts

Three districts had planned to begin in-person classes on Aug. 17, just one week after Beshear’s request. Laurel County, Green County and Clinton County had all planned to welcome students back five days a week.

McCracken County Schools had also planned on five-day-a-week in-person instruction starting on Aug. 24. Hours after the announcement, Superintendent Steve Carter said the district would start on Aug. 24 but with distance learning.

“While we are disappointed that we won’t get to see our students in person, we are ready for this endeavor, we have been planning for this since last March and we have a solid foundation plan for all of our students and families,” he said.

Ten districts had already pushed their first day of school to September, two planned all virtual and eight hoping for in-person classes.

Floyd County Schools planned to begin school Sept. 8, the day after Labor Day. The late start, which both parents and teachers said they preferred when surveyed, wasn’t because of the summer surge, but designed to allow for distribution of the devices and professional learning for teachers to use them, said Superintendent Danny Adkins (right). “We weren't that forward thinking. We were more worried about being able to provide exactly what our staff needed to be successful with our students,” he said.

And those devices will be needed. Though the district had planned for five-day-a-week instruction, many families chose the virtual option – more than 60 percent in one school, he said. The district has also spent nearly $100,000 preparing for in-person instruction, including sprayers to disinfect schools, hand sanitizer and other virus mitigation efforts.

Even though most districts will now start the school year online, all of the planning, purchasing and measuring wasn’t for naught, Dr. Connie White, deputy commissioner for the Department of Public Health, said during a question and answer session with superintendents.

“You’re going to have some well-thought out plans that you have worked on with all your partners,” White said. When in-person classes do begin, “you can jump right in … and not waste a lot of time pondering what you’re going to do next,” she said, “so the time has not been wasted. You have done a great advantage to your staff and students by doing this.”

Related articles:
Decisions: The Advocate follows up with three districts featured in the June issue about their plans for starting the school year

KHSAA approves fall sports competition, but start date is delayed

In Conversation With Dr. Connie Gayle White, on working with public education during the pandemic

KSBA Answers: School employees have leave flexibility this school year

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