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Back to school, back to COVID-19 concerns

back to school

Kentucky School Advocate
September 2021

By Brenna R. Kelly
Staff writer

This school year was supposed to be normal. That was what board members, administrators, teachers and parents hoped as they watched Kentucky’s COVID-19 cases fall through the spring and early summer.

But by late July, it was clear that this school year would more closely resemble the last, only this time with a more virulent strain of the coronavirus and different rules for operating schools and districts.

“We were so ready to put COVID behind us,” said LaRue County Superintendent David Raleigh. “And now, it’s like we’re back to where COVID is front and center. It’s demanding all of our time and attention.”

Masks, social distancing, increased disinfecting, contact tracing and resulting quarantines that lead to a lack of staff and more students out of school created a chaotic start to the new school year. Even before all 171 Kentucky school districts started, classes at least 15 districts closed or moved to virtual instruction due to the coronavirus. Others stayed open but struggled day to day with shortages of teachers, bus drivers and cafeteria workers, and hundreds or thousands of students in quarantine.

“The first couple of weeks of the school year have been more difficult than the entire school year last year,” Raleigh said.

More contagious, more cases in kids  
The Delta variant, which the Centers for Disease Control says is two times more transmissible than the original virus, swept through Kentucky starting in mid-July and by late-August the state was averaging more than 5,000 new cases a day. And more of those cases were in children.

Teachers welcome students to their first day of school at Country Heights Elementary School in Daviess County on Aug. 11. (Provided by Daviess County Schools)

 

On Aug. 26, 32.5 percent of the state’s new cases were in children 18 or younger. By contrast, during August 2020 only 11.8 percent of the cases were in children, according to the Department for Public Health.More cases in children also meant more cases and quarantines in schools. During the first two weeks of school, Jefferson County Schools had 956 students tested positive, 4,775 students were quarantined, 128 staff tested positive and 90 staff were quarantined.

Other districts had hundreds of students in quarantine on any given day. On Aug. 24, Barren County had more than 400 students in quarantine and Montgomery County had 116.

By Aug. 30, 11 districts had closed with no instruction for at least part of the closure. Four districts had decided to use Non-Traditional Instruction (NTI) days with Lee County using a mixture of closures and NTI. Franklin County Schools used five Non-Traditional Instruction (NTI) days after having 89 positive cases and 656 students quarantined.

“We are in a very difficult situation with COVID and it has made us analyze the data and force us to make a very difficult decision,” Superintendent Mark Kopp said in a video to families.

‘Not as much support’  
Unlike the 2020-21 school year when districts had unlimited NTI days, districts are now limited to 10 NTI days as the result of House Bill 208, passed by the 2021 General Assembly. Because of an Aug. 21 Kentucky Supreme Court ruling which limited the governor’s emergency powers, only the legislature can approve more days – either in a special session this fall or when they convene in January.

Other tools to help districts navigate the pandemic are also gone this year, including hybrid schedules, federal emergency leave for COVID-19, expanded FMLA leave and the ability to use a prior year’s attendance for funding purposes.

“There’s just not as much support in place, whether it be from the federal government or the state government as we had last year,” Raleigh said.

Many districts scaled back or did away with virtual academies and, as cases increased, some scrambled to beef up the programs or reopen applications.

Henry County Middle School 6th grade math teacher Tracy James starts the new school year with the students on Aug. 11. (Provided by Henry County Schools)

 “We’re concerned because a lot of kids are going to home school and we don’t have a virtual option right now,” Clay County Superintendent William Sexton told the Lexington Herald-Leader. “Virtual was not really successful but it was better than nothing. In-person is the best option if we can do that. We’re trying to do extra cleaning, social distancing in the classrooms, we’re wearing masks to cut down on transmission.”Districts do have a few tools this school year including quarantine leave days for teachers and staff who are vaccinated and an amended regulation passed by the Kentucky Board of Education which allows districts to count students in quarantine as in attendance if the district provides six hours of instruction.


The Kentucky Department of Education on Aug. 26 also issued guidance on how districts can offer hybrid schedules for grades 5-12 to increase social distancing in schools. Under the guidance, districts must have a policy for performance-based course credit and parents must request the hybrid schedule.

Raleigh, who held a working session with the board of education at the end of August to go over the district’s options, hopes the district will be able to continue providing in-person instruction.

“We've got them in school for now. We can see their eyes and we get to make those connections, those relationships,” he said. “We are very, very grateful for that, we just want to maintain that as long as we possibly can.”

Experience  
When Fleming County returned to school Aug. 11, Superintendent Brian Creasman was determined to make the school year as normal as possible for his more than 2,000 students.

At Fleming County Schools, teachers try to keep students outside as much as possible to reduce the spread of the virus, said Superintendent Brian Creasman. These students work outside at Flemingsburg Elementary School. (Provided by Fleming County Schools)

But just days into the new school year the Delta variant had already put a strain on in-person learning. Creasman sent out a letter warning that without increased vaccination rates and mask wearing in the community, the district would be unlikely to be able to continue holding in-person classes.“At this point, I’m pleading with every Fleming County adult to get vaccinated if you can, after speaking with your local physician,” Creasman wrote. Just 44 percent of Fleming County residents 12 and older were vaccinated at the time.


But Creasman said in late August that whether the vaccination rate increased or not, he was determined to make
in-person learning work.

“We’re going to figure out a way to navigate in person classes this year,” he said. “One of the things I’ve always communicated over the course of the pandemic is, if we close, our goal is to get back as soon as possible.”

Fleming County did not use a hybrid schedule last school year and only closed under the governor’s order or for inclement weather, so the district has learned from last year how to keep schools open, he said.

One of the strategies is to get students outside. The district rented 10 large convention tents, enough for every school, and bought picnic tables. Classes go outside as much as possible.

“I’m so thankful that we had almost a full year of doing a trial run,” he said. “One of the things that we do, is we keep kids outdoors January and February. We’ve worked with local physicians, so we know how long we can keep them outside.”

The district is also using every available indoor space as well, Creasman said.

“I would like to say that we're 100 percent 3 feet, but that’s where those masks come in, we can limit the quarantine by just masking as much as possible.”

Like Creasman, Raleigh is taking what the district learned last year and using it to figure out this year.

“I think one of the things that we learned during the pandemic last year was how important connectivity was and how important building relationships were,” he said.

While visiting schools in the first three weeks of the year, Raleigh said he could see that teachers were already weary. The lack of substitute teachers and the constant shuffling because of quarantines makes even more work for district staff.  

“It’s just been asking a lot of these folks in a challenging and stressful time,” he said. But he noted teachers have maintained a positive attitude for their students and value each day of
in-person learning.

“We just believe in being positive and being there for our kids,” he said. “I just think that’s what’s important in all this, we haven’t lost focus of that. Our kids are the most important thing in this.”

Top photo: Provided by LaRue County Schools

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