LOUISVILLE, Ky. (WDRB) -- Gov. Andy Beshear and members of his administration on Tuesday defended his recent call to delay reopening classrooms until late September as leaders of groups representing Kentucky education leaders testified in favor of respecting local decisions on the 2020-21 school year.
Some districts have rebuffed Beshear’s recommendation to postpone classroom learning options until at least Sept. 28, including Hardin County Schools. Green County Schools, which began its school year Monday with both in-person and virtual options, was the first public district in Kentucky to bring students back to schools since March.
Nineteen districts have decided to offer in-person instruction in their plans for the 2020-21 school year, according to the Kentucky School Boards Association.
Some districts that plan to reopen classrooms are in 20 Kentucky counties — Jefferson, Warren, Hardin, Scott, Bullitt, Barren, Shelby, Calloway, Bell, Knox, Henry, Spencer, Logan, Fulton, Lewis, Clay, Hickman, Powell, Wayne and Green — are among those identified by the White House as places where local COVID-19 testing positivity rates are 10% or higher, Beshear said.
Forty-three more counties have positivity rates between 5% and 10%, according to his presentation Tuesday. The state’s COVID-19 testing positivity rate is 5.48%, based on a seven-day rolling average, as of Tuesday.
Beshear, like other members of the administration, urged patience and said districts should delay classroom instruction until at least Sept. 28. The extra month would allow school leaders to learn from “the mistakes that other schools make” as they reopen classrooms across the country.
“This thing is so hot right now,” Beshear said of the state’s recent escalation of COVID-19 cases. “We have to understand our limitations and have humility in how we address this virus if we’re going to protect those around us.”
Lt. Gov. Jaqueline Coleman and Dr. Steven Stack, commissioner of the Kentucky Department for Public Health, said delaying the start of classroom instruction until at least Sept. 28 would give districts time to learn from the experiences of schools in other states.
“There’s a whole lot of places making mistakes around the country, and I think we’ve got to try to pay careful attention to that, learn from it and see if we can’t improve it because we do have to get kids back to school,” Stack said.
“These are particularly challenging times, and the risks I think are quite substantial,” he said.
Coleman noted that thousands of Mississippi teachers and students have been forced into quarantine since schools there reopened.
The Mississippi Clarion Ledger reported Monday that 589 teachers and 2,035 students have been quarantined for two weeks since some schools reopened classrooms this month, with 245 teachers and 199 pupils testing positive for COVID-19. Schools in 71 of the state's 82 counties reported outbreaks, and Gov. Tate Reeves announced plans to expand COVID-19 testing for Mississippi’s educators in the report.
“There’s a lot of talk about how this isn’t killing that many kids, and I have to tell you that if that’s our bar, then we’re in big trouble,” Coleman said.
“But what I will say is when school is called off for other infectious diseases such as the flu, we don’t wait for kids to die. … It’s called off because of the spread, not because of the fatality rate in children.”
Based on the experiences of schools in other states, Beshear said to expect changes in Kentucky’s school reopening guidance.
“Inside masking is going to need to be mandatory even if we’re able to spread out a little bit based on what we’ve seen at other schools and I even think based on some data that we’re going to see here in Kentucky,” he said.
Officials of groups representing superintendents and school board members who testified Tuesday before the Interim Joint Committee on Education, however, said decisions on learning models offered by schools to start the 2020-21 academic year should be left to local district leaders.
Jim Flynn, executive director of the Kentucky Association of School Superintendents, said many families wanted options for classroom instruction based on input sought by school districts.
“It’s hard to explain in many communities with low numbers of infections why we can’t reopen schools with in-person classes,” he said. “… We feel local decision making, using the guidance and recommendations from the health experts at both the local and state levels along with the best data and scientific evidence for navigating these extremely difficult important decisions, provides the greatest level of agility and responsiveness relative to the local context.”
Eric Kennedy, director of advocacy for the Kentucky School Boards Association, shared a similar sentiment.
“There is so much diversity across the communities of Kentucky that there really should not be a one-size-fits-all approach to this issue for providing education and reopening school,” Kennedy said.
But Beshear said statewide guidance is needed in the current COVID-19 landscape. Federal and state public health officials have told him the coronavirus is “too hot on a statewide basis,” he said.
“It is not safe for anybody,” Beshear said. “There will be a point where it may be safe in certain areas and not in others, but that’s not where we are right now.”
The state will also include COVID-19 cases identified at schools as part of its daily coronavirus reports, similar to how cases are reported at long-term care facilities.
Once a student or staff member tests positive for COVID-19, schools will be listed in daily briefings about the coronavirus after districts get 24 hours to notify their communities, Stack said.
Data will include the names of schools, the number of current cases and the number of recoveries, state health officials said.
“It’s not like you’re going to carry that caseload with you forever,” Dr. Connie White, deputy commissioner of the Department for Public Health, told superintendents Tuesday during their webcast.
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