FRANKFORT, Ky. (KT) - Concerns about reopening Kentucky’s schools during the middle of the coronavirus pandemic topped the discussion at a legislative committee meeting on Tuesday, with all the presenters appearing remotely.
Eric Kennedy with the Kentucky School Boards Association told the General Assembly’s Interim Joint Education Committee his organization had six critical issues to consider before classes resume:
--Will students return to in-person instruction, have distance learning, or a hybrid of the two?
--Will teachers and staff return to work in person, will they request some form of remote employment, or chose to retire/resign?
--Funding and procurement of such things as cleaning supplies and other virus mitigation measures such as masks, hand sanitizer and plexiglass shields.
--Support for required virus mitigation measures such as wearing masks and addressing compliance issues.
--What liability will a board or district administrators have if an on-site student or employee becomes ill?
--Will the U.S. Department of Education and the General Assembly waive statewide assessments for this school year as was granted last year?
In addition, according to Kennedy, “Will the General Assembly waive the 170 days of student attendance day minimum for this school year, similar to what you did this past school year?”
He told lawmakers, “The goal in the planning should be to have in-person instruction as much as possible, as safely as we possibly can, mitigating the risk of COVID-19 and its transmission, as much as we can.”
Eddie Campbell, president of the Kentucky Education Association, said it’s critical to get this right, ”This will not be easy. The teachers and education support staff are accustomed to doing hard things on behalf of their students, and this pandemic is no exception.”
While speaking to educators across the state, Campbell noted, “There is a great deal of concern, fear and confusion surrounding the reopening of schools. These generally fall into three categories: resources, responsibilities and health and safety.”
Dr. Jim Flynn, executive director of the Kentucky Association of School Superintendents, stated the pandemic has shown the importance of schools. “Not only in providing the mental, physical, social and emotional developmental well-being of our students, our most precious asset in every community, but also the importance our schools serve as part of the economy and how it runs. This goes beyond workforce development, but as a safe, nurturing place our children can go while parents are at work.”
Flynn described conversations he’s had with superintendents. “What I hear over and over again are these words, flexibility and funding.”
All three said Senate Bill 177, passed by the General Assembly this year, was a huge help in getting that flexibility through the end of the 2019-2020 school year, but that measure has now expired and will need to be replaced, if a new COVID-19 spike occurs.
Interim Education Commissioner Kevin Brown told the panel their plan is to use two aspects of social distancing, keeping students six feet apart in classrooms or requiring masks when the six-foot limit is not feasible.
Brown also said the Department of Education supports a hybrid plan of in-person instruction versus distance learning. “If students decline to attend in-person classes, we want school districts to have options for them during the time of a global pandemic.”
Julian Tackett, commissioner of the Kentucky High School Athletics Association testified that they hope to have a fall sports season at state schools, despite issues with the coronavirus.
“What that looks like could change, just like the data related to the virus changes,” he stated. “We are more optimistic now than perhaps a few weeks ago, when we see what the states of Illinois, Indiana and some of our other neighbors have been able to do. We get a little pessimism when we see what’s going on in Tennessee.”
Tackett said the KHSAA Board of Control is meeting on Friday, and may have more information following that gathering, which could include flipping spring and fall sports seasons.
“We realize that we’re walking a tightrope here,” he told the panel. “It’s obviously perceived and likely a real risk of participation in extracurricular athletics, but we are also, in very many communities, the number one dropout prevention tool that you have.”
He noted there is one study that shows basketball could be more dangerous than football, when it comes to spreading the coronavirus. “That surprises a lot of people when they’re talking about vulnerability to the disease, but that’s because it’s played inside with no ventilation, how long we practice, how long we play. There are going to have to be some areas addressed there.”