Gov. Andy Beshear coronavirus presser March 19

LOUISVILLE, Ky. (WDRB) -- Kentucky's public schools should remain closed until April 20 as the state tries to limit the spread of the novel coronavirus known as COVID-19, Gov. Andy Beshear announced Friday. 

Kevin Brown, interim education commissioner, told superintendents on a conference call with Beshear Friday to prepare six weeks of learning material, enough to last until May 1 if needed.

"What we’re seeing nationally and what we’re seeing in Kentucky is escalating cases," Beshear said on the call with superintendents Friday, according to the Kentucky Department of Education. He announced later that Kentucky has confirmed 63 cases of COVID-19, up from 47 Thursday.

"It is more important now than ever that we engage in social distancing, and while kids seem to be resilient to the virus, they can certainly get it and they can spread it."

Beshear previously recommended that schools across the state close for at least two weeks starting this week, and all 172 districts followed that guidance, most of them closing their doors to in-class instruction on Monday in hopes of mitigating the novel coronavirus known as COVID-19.

"It's necessary, and we believe it's better to let you parents and others know ahead of time that we're going to need to extend this," Beshear said of his decision to ask districts to stop in-person instruction for three weeks more than his original recommendation.

Jefferson County Public Schools Superintendent Marty Pollio said Kentucky's largest school district of some 99,000 students will follow Beshear's recommended extension.

The Archdiocese of Louisville said in a news release that it will also extend its closures of area Catholic schools until at least April 20.

The JCPS non-traditional learning plan, approved Thursday by the Jefferson County Board of Education and made possible by a waiver granted by the Kentucky Board of Education on Wednesday, will go into effect April 7.

Pollio said JCPS teachers will have a professional development day April 6 to familiarize themselves with the program, which requires students to complete at least five projects per week from "choice boards" available in physical and digital formats, and develop content for students. Teachers will use Google Classroom to coordinate with their students online, he said.

April 20 "would be the earliest that we could be back," Pollio said during a press conference shortly after Beshear publicly made his recommendation.

He cautioned that schools could be out beyond that date, possibly for the rest of the 2019-20 school year. In Indiana, Gov. Eric Holcomb ordered public schools to close for in-person instruction until May 1 and signaled that schools there may not resume traditional instruction this school year.

"I hope that's not the case," Pollio said. "Clearly this is something that just changes every single day."

"I'm hoping that it takes a positive trend, but clearly all indicators are and what we hear, that's not the case," he said, "so I think that's a distinct possibility, without a doubt."

Even with that looming question mark, Pollio said every school will have an opportunity to hold graduation ceremonies for seniors "whenever it is safe to do that."

Pollio said the district planned to distribute at least 25,000 Chromebooks to students who receive free or reduced-price meals during the extended closure and would look for partners to provide internet for homes of JCPS students who lack access. The district is also exploring ways to deliver physical copies of materials to students.

Pollio reiterated that his primary concern is providing remote instruction for students who lack the technology and internet access to learn digitally.

He also emphasized that he prefers traditional, in-person instruction to learning remotely.

"When it comes down to it, nothing beats in-person learning," Pollio said.

The lack of classroom time is also worrisome because of the potential impacts on student achievement, he said. Some students rely on JCPS schools for things like meals, though he noted that the district handed out more than 50,000 breakfasts and lunches at meal sites this week.

"It's going to be on us to take major steps to find ways to provide more kids summer instruction, more kids afterschool instruction next year as we begin to mitigate that loss," Pollio said. "... Right now we are focused on getting this platform up and running, having great instruction for our students virtually."

Pollio believes the district's plan for remote learning will be a national model for other districts to emulate and that it may be used to supplement traditional instruction in the future, such as in afterschool programs or summer and weekend learning.

"Nothing replaces face-to-face, in-class instruction with a teacher," he said. "I believe that thoroughly, and there's nothing, no platform that can replace that. I think we will evaluate and assess afterwards the number of students who access this, those that couldn't and make decisions in the future."

All school districts have been approved to implement non-traditional instruction plans, pending approval from local school boards, under the state education board's waiver that allows school districts not already participating in the program to join for the remainder of the 2019-20 school year in response to the COVID-19 outbreak.

Kentucky's General Assembly passed legislation Thursday that, among other items, allows districts to seek as many non-traditional instruction days as they need. The program is currently capped at 10 days.

Senate Bill 177 also allows school districts to provide emergency leave for certified and classified staff affected by the global COVID-19 pandemic at their school boards' discretion.

Beshear told superintendents on Friday's conference that he "will do everything in my power and under my emergency powers to try to make our school systems as whole as we can throughout this."

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