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LOUISVILLE, Ky. (WDRB) -- Kentucky school districts will ultimately decide when to transition to distance learning programs for the rest of the 2020-21 school year as many fully or partially reopened their classrooms for the first time in months Monday.

While the state’s new color-coded map of counties’ COVID-19 incidence rates helps in the decision-making process, district leaders who spoke to WDRB News on Monday say they will rely heavily on school-based coronavirus cases to determine whether buildings or classrooms should be temporarily closed due to outbreaks.

“In the beginning we didn’t know what COVID was going to be doing and we didn’t know enough about the virus, and so everything shut down,” Sally Sugg, superintendent for Shelby County Public Schools, said Monday as schools there reopened for students.

“But as scientists have learned more and of course our state and local health departments are up on what the virus looks like and how it works, it’s going to be a little bit more strategic.”

Gov. Andy Beshear had asked school systems throughout the state to delay the start of in-person instruction until Monday, with several ignoring the governor’s final recommendation on school operations during the COVID-19 pandemic. 

The governor recommended school districts close in March after the first COVID-19 cases were identified in Kentucky, later extending his recommendation to cover the entire 2019-20 school year.

When the state unveiled its color-coded COVID-19 incidence rates Sept. 14, Beshear said district leaders should monitor local caseloads in determining whether to transition back to nontraditional instruction. The map, which is updated daily, tracks how many new COVID-19 cases are reported per 100,000 residents in each county based on a seven-day rolling average.

Schools in counties with COVID-19 incidence rates of more than 25 per 100,000 residents should transition to distance learning, according to state guidance.

However, some school districts had already prepared their own local COVID-19 metrics when drafting back-to-school plans in the months before the state rolled out its map of counties’ incidence rates.

Oldham County Schools Superintendent Greg Schultz said he meets with district leaders daily to review COVID-19 data, such as positive cases within school buildings and the numbers of students and employees who are quarantined because of exposure. He also speaks with the Oldham County Health Department each day, he said.

“Our goal is to be in school as much as possible, but to do it, once again, with the least amount of risk that we possibly can,” Schultz said Monday as the district welcomed middle- and high-school students back for in-person classes on an alternating schedule. “We owe that to our families. We owe it to our community.”

Preschool programs and elementary schools reopened to OCS students on Sept. 16 after starting the 2020-21 school year with nontraditional instruction.

Bullitt County Public Schools opened for students in preschool, kindergarten, first grade and second grade on Monday as the district slowly begins resuming classroom instruction.

“Kids were excited getting out of the car, coming into the building,” Superintendent Jesse Bacon said. “Our teachers have been pretty vocal for the last couple of weeks about how much they miss their kids and want them back in the buildings.”

Bacon will meet with the Bullitt County Health Department every Friday to review the district’s COVID-19 data, he said, noting that specific schools and classes could be closed as cases rise.

“The good thing for us is we’ve been back now for about six weeks, and we’ve had extracurriculars participating in activities,” he said. “We’ve had groups of students that have come in to receive services since we opened school back up at the end of August, and while we’ve had positive cases, we’ve had not transmissions that have been traced back to any activity within our schools.”

Other Kentucky school systems started in-person instruction even earlier regardless of Beshear’s recommendation.

Hardin County Schools offered classroom learning as an option for families on Aug. 24, the first day of the 2020-21 school year. Spokesman John Wright said the district monitors COVID-19 cases at schools and has not come close to closing a school because of a coronavirus outbreak.

Hardin County has maintained a COVID-19 incidence rate that puts the county squarely in orange on the state’s color-coded map since its release, meaning Hardin County has between 10 and 25 new daily coronavirus cases per 100,000 residents based on a seven-day average. State guidance suggests school systems in orange counties consider transitioning completely to virtual learning.

“Obviously we’re ready for it if we need to be,” Wright said of transitioning schools to nontraditional instruction if needed. “… But we’ve never even had the discussion.”

Superintendents interviewed by WDRB News expect smaller class sizes will help mitigate the risk of COVID-19 outbreaks inside schools.

Many families have chosen distance learning options for their children rather than sending them back to schools once they reopen. About a quarter of families in Oldham, Bullitt and Shelby counties have opted for their districts’ virtual instruction academies instead of in-person learning options, according to superintendents.

“Our virtual learning academy has pulled about 25 to 30% of our students out,” Schultz said. The district’s alternating schedule for middle- and high-school students will also lower the numbers of people inside schools and classrooms, he said.

Jefferson County Public Schools, Kentucky’s largest school district, is still contemplating reopening its schools after starting 2020-21 with at least six weeks of distance learning.

The Jefferson County Board of Education will consider allowing students back inside classrooms if local COVID-19 infection rates decline. The district is tentatively projecting an Oct. 22 reopening date for preschool and elementary students, Superintendent Marty Pollio said Friday.

While JCPS leaders are drafting a reopening plan, they have not discussed what criteria will be used to determine when to return to nontraditional instruction if needed, spokesman Mark Hebert said.

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