Face masks, rotating teachers, and half-empty buses: How COVID-19 could upend Kentucky students in 2020
It is looking like 2020 will be a very different school year for students across Kentucky.
As the COVID-19 pandemic continues, the Kentucky Department of Public Health (DPH) joined the state's 172 superintendents during a webcast Tuesday to offer guidance on reopening school buildings this upcoming fall.
DPH Commissioner Dr. Steven Stack provided an overview of the virus and said that a vaccine would likely not be available until at least 2021.
Stack says this means we "thin ourselves out" by staying a minimum of six feet apart.
This stipulation, along with CDC guidelines stating that students should be seated in every other seat when on a school bus, raised concerns about the practicality of transporting students.
“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?” asked one superintendent during the webcast.
Stack acknowledged that this will be a challenge for districts, but said that he does not have an answer.
“If you put them all too close together, they end up spreading infection and even if we tell all of the children to wear masks, we see how successful we are with adults, unfortunately,” said Stack.
The subject of masks was also brought up frequently, with superintendents raising concerns about whether staff and students would be required to wear masks upon reopening.
Doctor Stack said he believed current guidance on wearing masks would be a part of daily life for Kentuckians for the foreseeable future.
However, he said students such as special needs students with sensory issues, should not be asked to do so and said teachers working with these students are "strongly urged" to continue wearing masks when working with these children.
The DPH also recommended that districts consider grouping students together to limit the number of contacts.
That could mean students stay in the same classroom all day, with teachers rotating from room to room.
“If we’ve got a group of students who stay together, then if one of them gets sick we’re only having to look at 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,” said DPH Deputy Commissioner Dr. Connie White.
Officials hope that by doing this they can make it easier to conduct the recently introduced contract tracing program.
Although DPH told superintendents implementation of this guidance should be guided by what is "feasible, practical, acceptable and tailored to the needs of each community," superintendents began saying they are not optimistic about a fall reopening.
“The challenges are significant and it doesn’t mean we won’t let schools open up,” said Stack. “It may mean that we have to accept that when school opens up that there are more kids together than we would prefer because of the counterbalancing trade-off of having them fall further behind in education.”
As for planning for the upcoming school year, Interim Education Commissioner Kevin G. Brown recommended districts include plans for non-traditional instruction (NTI) as well as plans for traditional, in-person classroom instruction.
At its March 18 meeting, the Kentucky Board of Education approved waivers that allowed all 172 Kentucky school districts to join the NTI Program. However, this waiver was only applicable for the 2019-2020 school year.
Beginning next school year, districts will again only be allowed 10 NTI days and superintendents said that with this restriction in place, it is difficult to plan innovative practices.
Brown reassured districts that they could “take it to the bank” that they would have additional NTI days in the fall.
“We are going to do that through the governor’s emergency executive order authority,” said Brown. “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.”
Brown said that the plan is for the department to request a waiver similar to the one issued by Lt. Gov. Jacqueline Coleman, secretary of the Kentucky Education and Workforce Development Cabinet, on April 3 that suspended the requirement that students who plan to graduate from high school in 2020 pass a civics test, as well as certain requirements for completing an early high school graduation program.
The waiver will request additional NTI days, which Brown says will be the easy part. The more difficult aspect of the designation will be figuring out how attendance and funding will be counted if Kentucky continues forward with an adjusted opening in which schools reopen with staff shortages or social distancing measures that will impact capacity, or with the possibility of some schools being unable to reopen.
Brown said he plans to have the NTI waiver submitted to Coleman’s office by mid-June.
To view the full webcast, you can do so by clicking the link