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To go or not to go?

Bowling Green student

Boards face tough decisions on in-person classes

Kentucky School Advocate
September 2020

By Brenna R. Kelly
Staff writer

School board members make a lot of important decisions – whom to hire as district leader, whether to raise taxes, when to build a new school or where to draw school attendance lines.

But the decision of when to return to in-person classes for the 2020-21 school year has become the most contentious issue board members have faced in decades.

“School board members have been inundated with phone calls and emails and people reaching out to them about reopening probably more than anything since desegregation,” said Eric Kennedy, KSBA’s director of advocacy. 

While the majority of boards decided to follow the governor’s recommendation to delay in-person classes until Sept. 28, by the third week of September, 49 of Kentucky’s 171 districts voted to return to in-person instruction prior to the governor’s recommended date.For most of those boards, the votes were preceded by hours-long meetings with reports from public health officials, comments from parents, and discussion among board members. 

“I’ve fielded more phone calls in the last two days on this subject than I did for a nickel tax,” Christian County board member Jeff Moore said during the Sept. 3 meeting at which the board voted to return to in-person classes on Sept. 8.

Vice chairman Tom Bell said he heard from more than 40 constituents on text, email and social media before the meeting. Bell, the lone vote against the early start, said that the constituents who contacted him did not want to return to in-person classes before late September.

Moore, who voted with the majority, said he waivered on the decision until he learned that some students had not logged on to virtual classes since the start of school.

“Our job is to keep our kids as safe as possible, but our main job is to educate these children for this world to get better,” Moore said.

But Bell worried about elementary students being spaced only 3 feet apart, instead of 6 feet, and noted that the local health department advised the district against starting in-person.

“I think our No. 1 priority is to keep the kids safe and then educate them,” Bell said. “And yes, I do believe children learn better when they are in a classroom, but I don’t think the classrooms are ready.”

‘We could go back, and we could do it safely’

More than half of the districts that decided to return before the recommended date are in the western half of the state, two are in Warren County.

Both Warren County Schools and Bowling Green Independent began in-person classes on Aug. 24. Both districts are using hybrid schedules in which two groups of students attend school on alternating days.

Much like Christian County, Bowling Green Independent board members were inundated with texts, calls and emails before the board’s Aug. 14 vote to return to in-person classes.


 “There were those who were adamantly opposed to going back and then there were those who said, please take our children back into the school room. They need it. They need to be with a teacher they need to be in a classroom,” said Jane Wilson, Bowling Green Independent board chairwoman. “So we heard it from both sides.”The back-to-school decision has been the most difficult topic she has faced in her eight years as a board member, Wilson said. Only a non-resident dispute with Warren County several years ago was as contentious.

“But it didn’t affect everyone like this does, parents and grandparents, everyone, potentially,” she said.

Wilson said the board’s unanimous decision was made easier by the administration’s mitigation plan which includes nurses in each school, telemedicine capabilities, drive up coronavirus testing for students and having a reduced number of students in the building.

“We as a board were impressed with the thought process that went into making the school as safe as possible,” Wilson said. “We knew we were only going to have about 40 percent of our kids in the classroom at a time. And the teachers felt that was very doable.”

About 80 percent of the district’s 4,100 students chose the in-person option, reducing the numbers of students in the building.

Bowling Green board members and administrators also coordinated with Warren County Schools, which voted a few days later to return to in-person classes on the same day as Bowling Green.

“I think it helped that the whole educational community agreed that we could go back, and we could do it safely,” Wilson said.

After two weeks of in-person classes, Wilson said classes were going well. As of Sept. 12, Bowling Green Independent had seen 11 positive students and two positive staff members, according to state data. The district had not had to close any schools due to positive cases.

“The kids are happy to be back and the teachers are happy to be back. So, I think so far, it’s worked,” she said.

‘School’s important’

Bowling Green Superintendent Gary Fields agreed.

“It’s been incredibly smooth,” said Fields, who tested positive for the virus in mid-August but did not experience symptoms. “Our parents that chose to come in person, I think were fully committed to that and their kids were committed to that, so that helps.”

Despite the new state guidance that requires students to always wear a mask indoors, Fields said the district has not had to discipline any students for not complying. The district even has a surplus of masks because administrators stocked up in case students forgot one from home or lost them, but teachers haven’t had to hand out many, he said.

“I think for the kids especially it's just become part of their daily lives,” he said. “It just shows that our kids rise to the occasion, sometimes much better than adults give them credit for. They'll do what they have to do because it’s important to them, school’s important.”

Fields believes the hybrid model, with students attending on alternating days, has been one of the keys to the district’s success.

Students at Bowling Green Independent’s Junior High are spaced 6 feet apart. Superintendent Gary Fields says the distance will mean that if one student tests positive, entire classes will not need to quarantine. Provided by Bowling Green Ind.

 “Having half of the kids who have decided to come in person is, is very doable. I think it's instructionally sound,” he said. “Our teachers really feel like although they only see kids in person two days a week, they are getting a tremendous amount done because they have eight, 10 or 12 kids in a class.”On the days the students are not in school, they complete assigned work from home, he said.

Another benefit of the alternating schedule is that when a student or staff member does test positive, entire classrooms do not have quarantine because the students are 6 feet apart or more, he said. Under the Centers for Disease Control’s guidelines, an individual who has been within 6 feet for at least 15 minutes, regardless of mask wearing, is considered a contact.

“If we had all the kids back and the positives we’ve had so far, which have been very limited, it would quarantine whole classrooms because kids would be packed in there,” he said.

Because of that, Fields said he doesn’t know when the district will resume five-day-a-week classes.

“We will have to continue on this until there is something that changes and right now, nothing has changed,” he said. “There’s not a vaccine, there’s not any medical guidance to tell us to change.”

The only alternative is moving to all virtual and most parents have said they want in-person instruction, even if it’s limited, he said.

“We just couldn’t bring everybody back. I don’t think that would be the safe thing to do,” he said. “It was a difficult decision for our board to make just to come back on a hybrid. So, we’re definitely not ready to ask them to do any more than that.”

An early review

BentzelAfter four days of in-person classes in Christian County, Superintendent Chris Bentzel said students were adapting well to the changes in procedures and the new safety measures. 

The district, which has 8,701 students, had alternating schedules for middle and high school students, but five-day-a-week instruction in its elementary schools. State data showed the district had three active student cases, all in elementary schools, and one positive staff case. According to the district, a total of 35 students or employees were in quarantine.

“Bringing our kids back was a team decision and effort and we are taking it one day at a time,” he said.  “Each day we find tasks that we can do better, but we have no doubt it was a good decision for our students, staff, and community.”

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