Superintendent Mike Smith

JCPS Superintendent Mike Smith hopes to have a traditional opening to the upcoming school year

Jackson County Public School Superintendent Mike Smith participated in an online webinar with Kentucky Public Health officials last week to discuss plans for the upcoming school year and how to accommodate concerns over the coronavirus and COVID-19. Dr. Steven Stack, commissioner of public health, told the superintendents that because there will be no vaccine this year, and no treatment is likely to be widely used before school is fully underway, schools will have to rely on social distancing and other public-health measures to reduce the risk of infection. He warned them that the virus is so contagious that without intervention, every person who has it will infect three more. He reminded them that while children who get the virus generally have mild cases of COVID-19, they can pass it on to those who are more vulnerable, and even those who don't develop the disease can be contagious.

The guidance discussed by state public health officials, among other things, includes recommendations for social distancing, not only in classrooms, but also in the hallways and school buses; to keep the same group of students together all day, while teachers move from class to class; daily temperature checks, for those who are able to wear a mask all day; enhanced hand hygiene and surface cleaning; and for those who are sick or who have been exposed, home quarantine for at least 14 days, the incubation period for the virus.

Some Kentucky school superintendents say they wouldn't be able to re-open schools under suggested state guidelines that require social distancing on school buses, rely on children to wear masks and will disrupt the normal class structure of upper grades. They voiced their concerns to public-health officials and the state education commissioner in an online meeting May 26, and were told that opening under the guidelines would be difficult but possible.

Superintendent Smith is taking a cautious metered approach. “It is too early to reach any conclusions about the next school year. There are simply too many unknown variables. I hope we can implement a plan that is very close to the traditional model. However, we are looking at alternative plans and will start to nail down more specifics as we get closer to the beginning of the school year. The health and safety of our students is our top priority,” Smith said. Superintendent Smith also meets online every week with a group of 23 regional Superintendents to discuss localized issues keeping an eye on circumstances in real time.

Stack said, "So, the challenge we all face is substantial. I don't say these things to undermine our confidence that we will find ways to overcome them, but I do say them at least to be sobering in the sense that it is a big challenge." He said he had seen no "real good solutions yet for these trade-offs, between bringing large numbers of children back together where they can infect each other and then take infection back home, relative to the other cost to society . . . having all these children not getting their education, perhaps falling behind and their parents unable to work as reliably because their children are not in school. . . . They are very real and very serious trade-offs.”

"I do believe we can do this. I believe it is going to be a heavy lift," Interim Education Commissioner Kevin Brown said.

What About Buses?: The current guidance recommended by the state calls for keeping students and staff six feet away from each other, even on buses, where guidance from the CDC calls for one student to a seat, with a seat between them. "We can't transport like that, and if we don't transport, we can't have school. Is there any realistic guidance for school buses?" one superintendent asked.

Stack called this is "an enormous challenge" and said he didn't have an easy answer. "If you put them all too close together, they end up spreading infection, and even if we tell all the children to wear masks, we see how successful we are with adults, unfortunately, and children aren't likely to be much better," he said "If anything they are likely to be less compliant."

What About Masks?: The superintendents also asked many questions about who would and would not be required to wear a mask. Stack stressed that anyone who is not able to wear a mask would not be required to wear one, but said everyone else would need to wear one.

"The masks are likely to remain part of our future for quite a while, and I don't have any relief to offer on that," Stack said. "That's just one of the simplest and easiest things we can do to try to minimize the spread of infection." Deputy Health Commissioner Connie White said, “Children can frequently have no symptoms and spread the infection so easily, if they are wearing a mask, it helps keep the infection to them and keeps it away from others.”

During the webinar the superintendents asked if schools would be required to provide cloth masks to students, then voiced concerns that if they did provide them, the students wouldn't bring them back from day to day.

One solution to this problem was to ask community volunteers to make masks. The Hardin County Schools website has already posted such a request, saying masks will be accepted only from provided materials, because students will only be allowed to wear colors designated for their grade level. Hardin County students will receive masks when they get to school or when they get on the bus in the morning. Masks will be collected at the end of the day to be washed, dried and sanitized so that they can be passed out again the next day.

What About Classes?: The state guidance also calls for grouping students in such a way that they stay together in one classroom all day, with teachers rotating in and out. This is meant to minimize the number the number of personal contacts throughout the day.

That will create a major challenge in the upper grades, where teachers are usually certified to teach in one subject area. Superintendents said finding ways to group students appropriately to accommodate a full day of classes will be difficult. Health officials urged them to be creative.

White explained the science: "If we've got a group of students that stay together, then if one of them gets sick, then we are only having to deal with looking and caring for a smaller group, as opposed to if one kid gets sick and they've been intermingling with 250 kids in the high school."

What About Funding?: White also acknowledged that telling students to stay home when they have no symptoms but have been exposed to the virus "really hits your bottom line," since state funding is based on average daily attendance.

What About Use of NTI?: Superintendents asked if it wouldn't be best to just go ahead and plan for nontraditional instruction, or NTI, in the fall. Brown said schools need to have a playbook that includes both in-person instruction and NTI, as well as a hybrid approach that uses both, and recognize that the playbook probably won't be executed exactly as planned. He said it must allow schools to pivot quickly and efficiently from one scenario to the next.

He said schools would be allowed NTI days in the fall, through Gov. Andy Beshear's emergency powers, and “Even if we did not do it through that authority, I am confident that the General Assembly would have gone back and made that retroactive when they meet in January.”

After superintendents repeated their concerns about reopening under the guidelines, Stack said, "I wish I had more reassurance . . . but the challenges are significant, and it doesn't mean we won't let school open up; and it may mean we have to accept that when school opens up that there are more kids together than we would prefer because the counterbalancing trade-offs of having them fall further behind in education, of having parents who can't be at work, that those things are so substantial that we have to try to figure out a way to navigate the trade-offs. I think it is premature for us to reach the conclusion that we can't have school yet in the fall."

Politicians' views and legal issues

Beshear often says at his daily briefings that his two main goals in dealing with the virus are to open the economy and to reopen schools this fall. "I want to get our kids back to school. We know that distance learning isn't the same, we know that our kids fall behind when they do it, we know as parents how hard it is to step in," he said at his May 15 briefing. That was the same day the Kentucky Department of Education released its 16-page document, meant to serve as a starting point for schools and districts as they work toward reopening.

U.S. Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell said in a recent visit to Owensboro that most people are comfortable with getting back to normal, and that one of the most important aspects in doing so would be having children return to school. “K-12 and college-age kids need to be back in school,” McConnell said. “There are consequences for being cooped up at home. You’ve seen the results of these studies indicating suicide is up, spousal abuse is up, child abuse is up. There are health-related consequences as well. So, clearly, that needs to come to an end.” McConnell has also called for schools to be legally protected from lawsuits that could arise due to resuming classes amid the pandemic.

The Superintendents were advised to be creative but observant. White told the superintendents that the guidance is based in science, but as the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention says, "You have to look at feasibility, accessibility, and you have to tailor that to your particular community. The closer you can get to these, the less likely there will be issues." She encouraged the superintendents to be creative

"We don't have a covid police," White said. "Nobody is going to be coming with a six-foot measure and measuring and citing people We feel like that if we give you the information you need, then you are going to come up with those creative situations to make the best possible things happen for your students."

Brown said local schools are obliged to follow state guidelines: "Everyone needs to act in good faith. Local school districts are state actors; even though they are locally controlled, they are arms of the state. And I think we all want to act in good faith, and we don't want to have a situation where these practices are not followed."

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