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New year, new guidelines for in-person learning

New year, new guidelines

Kentucky School Advocate
January 2021

By Brenna R. Kelly
Staff writer

When students returned to the classroom after Winter Break, there were some changes to how in-person learning is conducted in Kentucky schools.

Gov. Andy Beshear, in a Dec. 18 executive order, laid out both recommendations and requirements for schools to resume in-person learning beginning Jan. 4.

The goal of the new measures is to allow in-person classes even when counties are in the red on the state’s COVID-19 incidence map, Beshear said at a Dec. 14 news conference. Red counties have more than 25 cases per 100,000 residents.

Before creating the new mitigation strategies, Lt. Gov. Jacqueline Coleman said that she, Beshear and Education Commissioner Jason Glass consulted superintendents, teachers, parents and the state’s education groups.

The order urges districts to delay a return to in-person instruction until Jan. 11 to allow for a potential surge in cases after the Christmas holiday to wane before bringing students and educators into the classroom, however districts can resume in-person instruction on Jan. 4.

The recommendation to delay returning to class came from both the Kentucky Department of Education and the Kentucky Department of Public Health due to the likelihood of people holding large get-togethers during the holidays, Beshear said.

“It is much safer to start on the 11th than on the fourth,” he said.

As of Jan. 6, at least 123 districts had announced they would hold in-person classes on or after Jan. 11. At least 30 districts said they would hold in-person before Jan. 11, including 21 districts that started in-person classes on Jan. 4.Henry County Superintendent Terry Price said his district would resume classes on Jan. 5.

“We have to do this at some point. It’s gone on long enough,” Price told WRDB-TV. “I think it could be controversial to some, but it’s one of those things that is not just me. When I speak with the district, we really feel like it’s a necessity.”

In addition to delaying the return to classes, Beshear urged districts to implement hybrid schedules with students attending on alternating days to reduce the numbers of teachers and students in buildings.

As of Jan. 6, at least 73 districts had announced they would use hybrid schedules, while 11 districts announced that elementary school students would attend four or five days a week and middle and high schools would use hybrid schedules.Under the executive order, when counties hit the orange category on the state’s matrix – 10-15 cases per 100,000 residents – the district should consider a hybrid schedule and when the county turns red, districts should use a “more aggressive hybrid” or move to all virtual instruction.

“If we can decrease that number (of people in buildings) almost like capacity when we look at other businesses, it’s safer and it’s easier to get 6 feet between individuals,” Beshear said.

The use of the four-color matrix remains a recommendation and whether to hold in-person or virtual class will be a local decision, Beshear’s order said.

While allowing in-person classes in red counties, the executive order also implements some requirements.

Districts must provide “meaningful virtual options for all students, and ensure that students who participate in virtual learning options have the same access to rigorous instruction and course work that they would have access to in person or provide a commensurate alternative without negatively impacting a student's academic standing,” the executive order states. The requirement includes Advanced Placement classes and career and technical education classes.

Beshear noted that at least one district did not offer virtual students AP classes.

“We have students that have pre-existing conditions that make COVID especially dangerous for them having to decide whether their class rank is going to be impacted or whether they were going to go into an environment they believe is unsafe,” Beshear said.

In addition to accommodating students, under the order districts in orange or red counites “must provide accommodation to high-risk employees who request an alternative or virtual work assignment.”

The order defines high-risk as:

• A body-mass index of greater than 35

• Chronic kidney disease

• Diabetes

• Immunosuppressive disease

• Is receiving immunosuppressive treatment

• 65 or older

• 55 or older and has cardiovascular disease, hypertension or chronic obstructive pulmonary disease/other chronic respiratory disease

“To say we are going to go to school when our county is red and force employees who are more susceptible to COVID that fall into one of those categories, is something we cannot allow,” Beshear said. “This is what it takes to make a school building safe not just for children … but it’s got be safe for teachers too.”

Employees who meet the requirements must be allowed to work remotely until at least seven days after they receive the final dose of the vaccine. Employees who decline the vaccine do not have to be accommodated, the order states.

When schools reopen, complying with the Safety Expectations included in the state’s Healthy at School guidance will be mandatory, the order states.

Schools must also continue to report COVID-19 cases and self-quarantine data to the state, Beshear said.

While preparing to meet the new guidelines and reopen schools, districts are also preparing for educators and staff to receive the COVID-19 vaccine. Beshear has said he expects that educators will be able to start getting vaccinated by the first week in February.

Districts were told to submit rosters of employees willing to receive the vaccine to the Department of Public Health by Dec. 30. Officials said the rosters should include all staff, not only teachers.

It also is possible that districts will be asked by the Kentucky Department of Public Health to prioritize vaccine distribution by vaccinating higher risk individuals first.

“The districts are going to set the priorities of individuals and how they're going to start,” Beshear said on Dec. 29.

Beshear noted that once educators are vaccinated he will feel much more confident about districts holding in-person classes.

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