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State, public health officials underscore importance following COVID-19 guidance

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Kentucky School Advocate
November 2020

By Brenna R. Kelly
Staff writer

As the state reached a record number of coronavirus cases in late October, Gov. Andy Beshear, Lt. Gov. Jaqueline Coleman and state education and public health officials held a virtual meeting with all Kentucky superintendents.

The 38,877 cases reported in October, surpassed the cases for March, April, May, June and July combined. As cases, increase so do deaths related to the virus – by the first week in November more than 1,500 Kentuckians had died from coronavirus.

The rapid increase in cases led to many more counties being classified as red on the state’s COVID-19 incidence map. Counties in the red have significant spread and are under state public health and Kentucky Department of Education recommendations, districts in those counties are advised to switch to virtual instruction.

During the virtual meeting, Beshear and Coleman praised superintendents for their work helping to stop the spread of the coronavirus and urged them to help their communities understand the importance of following public health guidelines.

“We just want to let you know how proud we are of the work that our schools have done, and the success that you’ve had,” Coleman said. “Now we want to keep that success going. And we certainly don’t want to move backwards.”

As of Nov. 2, 159 of Kentucky’s 171 school districts had begun holding in-person classes, either five days a week, four days a week or on a hybrid schedule. Most schools are following the state guidelines on social distancing, mask-wearing, sanitizing and taking temperatures, she said.

“As a result – and I’m going to knock on wood when I say this – we have not seen any major outbreaks in schools yet,” Coleman said.

But in many parts of the state, the public has not been as vigilant and the result is widespread virus, Beshear said, adding that the state could see 2,000 cases a day for several weeks.

Beshear asked governments, businesses and residents in counties in the red on the state’s COVID-19 incidence map – those with more than 25 cases per 100,000 residents – to follow new guidelines including allowing employees to work from home, limiting shopping trips and getting take out instead of eating in restaurants.

The new guidelines were meant to coincide with the recommendation for districts in red counties to return to virtual instruction.

“These last months you were going alone in what we were asking when a county turned red,” Beshear said. “And so our goal was to get a whole community team on board, working with you so that when a county goes red, the entire community is doing everything it takes, especially in that first week to tamp down cases.”

Department of Public Health Commissioner Dr. Steven Stack said that when cases increase, hospitalizations, admissions to the intensive care unit and deaths follow.

“We are facing a real danger now,” he said.

In person or virtual
Stack noted that superintendents asked for a metric that would help determine when to open and close schools for in-person instruction, so public health officials created the COVID-19 Mode of Instruction Metrics for K-12 Education tool.

However, many school districts have decided to ignore the guidance that says classes should be virtual when a county is red, he said.

“I am disappointed that we seem to have an increasing number of districts or superintendents who are deciding now that we have a metric, it’s just not the right one, or we’ll define a new one, or we’ll create one that produces the results we want or need,” he said.

Districts are advised to use the state’s incidence map each Thursday to determine whether to hold in-person classes the next week. For the week of Oct. 26, at least 26 school districts in red counties continued to hold classes – either five days a week, four days a week or in a hybrid schedule – despite being in the red category.

Asked why the state doesn’t mandate that school districts follow the modes of instruction metric, Coleman noted that districts have consistently asked to maintain local control.

Education Commissioner Jason Glass said when counties turn red, district leaders should discuss the situation with public health officials but noted that under state law (KRS 158.160) it is up to the local school board whether to close schools.

“The statute indicates that during an epidemic, it’s the local school board that should be the one that is making the decision about whether or not to close the school. They may have delegated that to you as superintendent,” he said. “But I believe it is your responsibility that all of you have as we hit this new phase to bring up this conversation with your community and decide what the best thing is to do for that community.”

Public health officials said the tool would remain in place when the state’s positivity rate is under 6 percent. However, as the rate climbed to 6.25 percent by Nov. 2, Beshear said districts should continue to follow it for the time being.

Fort Thomas Superintendent Karen Cheser asked how public health officials know that moving to virtual instruction will stop the spread, given that while in her schools, students are 6 feet apart and wearing masks.

“We’re concerned that closing schools will actually cause cases to increase,” she said.

Stack said there are still many unknowns with the virus and some studies have shown there is not significant spread in schools.

“But one thing that’s not unknown is that when we bring people together in bigger groups, that transmission occurs,” he said. “When you bring together hundreds or thousands of people into the school buildings, you’re bringing a lot of people from a lot of different homes together, and you’ve increased the risk of potential transmission or spread if they break the protocols, or even if they’re just in confined spaces for a long time.”

Some superintendents also noted that when they follow the guidance to move to virtual, they receive criticism in the community because another district in the next county – or even in the same county – is not.

Stack said state officials want to get all schools, nursing homes, local government and the general community in red counties on the same page in order to create a critical mass to stop the spread. If that happens, he said, “I think we'll find within a couple of weeks, that whole map will look much better.”

“It won’t be normal,” Stack said, “but it’ll be much better in a month after we did it, everybody will be back to yellows and oranges. If we just did this for a month, if we just all pulled together.”

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