Tool helps districts determine if school should be open
Kentucky School Advocate
By Brenna R. Kelly
At least 147 of Kentucky’s 171 school districts had resumed in-person classes by Oct. 12, with another 12 districts scheduled to begin holding in-person classes before the end of the month.
But some districts had not yet scheduled a return to in-person learning or had seen their start dates pushed back multiple times due to high rates of coronavirus in the community.
In an attempt to bring stability and certainty into when schools should be open for in-person class, the Kentucky Department of Public Health created a tool that uses the state’s COVID-19 incidence rate map and a corresponding four-color chart to guide districts’ decisions.
The tool advises districts in red counties – those where there are more than 25 coronavirus cases per 100,000 residents – to move to virtual instruction while allowing counties in the orange, yellow and green to hold classes while following the state’s Healthy at School guidelines.
The tool is a guideline, not a requirement, Education Commissioner Jason Glass explained during the Sept. 29 Superintendents Webcast.“It’s in state law that in the event of closing in an epidemic situation, it’s the school board’s decision on does the school remain open or not,” Glass said.
However, Dr. Connie White, deputy public health commissioner, warned districts that “if something untoward happened and you had not taken the guidance and recommendation of the Department of Public Health and the Department of Education on whether to close or not, that could put you in a situation that may be difficult for you.
“The guidances are there because it was felt like this is best for the school, students and the community,” she said.
As coronavirus cases continue to surge to record levels in early October, many districts in red counties used the tool and decided to delay or suspend in-person classes while other districts in red counties decided to begin or continue in-person classes.
Dawson Springs Independent had been planning to return to in-person classes Oct. 12, but just three days before the start of school, its county was in the red with 29.7 cases per 100,000 residents. Superintendent Leonard Whalen posted a message that the district would try again on Oct. 19.
Whitley County Schools decided to delay classes on Sept. 26, just two days before the district’s planned return to in-person classes.
“After talking with the local health department and local health officials, we feel that returning to in-seat instruction on Monday is not the wise or safe thing to do for our students, their families or our staff,” the district said in a Facebook post. The district was still using virtual instruction through the week of Oct. 12 as the county remained in the red category.
However, some districts decided to continue in-person classes despite the state’s recommendation to move to virtual learning. In its decision to proceed with in-person classes on Oct. 12, Leslie County Schools noted a steady decline in the number of its cases, despite its red classification.
Other districts including Union, Warren, Webster, Rockcastle and Christian counties all continued with in-person classes despite being red.
Laurel County, which began classes on Sept. 3 continued in-person instruction while the county was in the red, but with the local health department’s OK. In the first week in October, the county was seeing an average of 16 new cases a day, Laurel County Health Department Executive Director Mark Hensley, told WYMT-TV.
“At this point we don’t feel like the school has been a detriment to the increase in our incident rate here in Laurel County," he said.
In addition to moving to virtual because of being in the red category, some districts have ceased in-person classes because of positive cases or a high number of students and/or staff in quarantine.
Lincoln County Schools moved to virtual learning from Oct. 12-23 because of high number of cases in the county and the number of students in quarantine, Superintendent Michael Rowe said in a social media post.
“We met with the health department and a representative from the department of public health … and discussed the amount of staff and students we have quarantined, and the rise in positive cases in our county,” he said. The move to virtual learning was an attempt to help mitigate the county’s increase in cases, he said.
“We will meet with the health officials and see where the numbers are at within the school district and the county and base the decision off of that going forward,” Rowe said. “We had 14 staff members asked to be quarantined by the health department after one week of instruction. This obviously is not sustainable for us as a district.”
Metcalfe County schools also moved to virtual learning Sept. 28 through Oct. 2 after a small group of staff members tested positive. The district held fall break from Oct. 5-9 and returned to in-person instruction on Oct. 12.
The back and forth between in-person instruction and virtual learning is likely to continue for the rest of the 2020-21 school year. It’s a fact that students, parents, teachers and superintendents are learning to live with.
Marion County Superintendent Taylora Schlosser said during the Superintendents Webcast that she’s grateful for every day of in-person instruction no matter the challenges, including constantly changing guidance, finding substitute teachers and keeping up with communicating with families.
“Right now, what we need to do is appreciate the day that we have in school and enjoy that,” she said, “and then we’ll tackle tomorrow when tomorrow comes.”