FILE - In this March 29, 2020, file photo, Kentucky Gov. Andy Beshear speaks during a media conference on the coronavirus at the Capitol in Frankfort, Ky. Kentucky's Democratic governor vetoed legislation Friday, April 24, 2020, that would have given the state's anti-abortion attorney general new authority to regulate abortion clinics. (Ryan C. Hermens/Lexington Herald-Leader via AP, File)

LOUISVILLE, Ky. (WDRB) -- Gov. Andy Beshear has ordered Kentucky's public and private schools to close classrooms starting Monday as COVID-19 cases continue to soar throughout the state.

Beshear announced the sweeping edict during a news conference Wednesday detailing steps his administration will take to curb the spread of COVID-19. It's the first time Beshear has ordered, rather than recommended, schools to cease in-person instruction in response to the pandemic.

"If we are going to be able to provide meaningful educational experiences, in-person especially, at the beginning of the next semester, we have to take action now," he said.

"We will make every effort to make sure that in January we have the opportunity to return to in-person instruction," Beshear said.

The governor said elementary schools can resume classroom instruction Dec. 7 if their counties drop from "red" and districts adhere to public health guidance. Middle and high schools can reopen classrooms on Jan. 4, he said.

Beshear estimated that nearly 10,000 students will ultimately be quarantined this week if current trends hold. About 2,000 staff members could similarly be isolated this week, he said.

As of Tuesday, 2,823 students and 448 school employees are in quarantine, according to state data. More than 400 students and nearly 240 staff members had newly reported COVID-19 diagnoses as of Tuesday.

Last week, districts self-reported 1,067 COVID-19 cases among students and 568 among staff with 6,601 students and 1,152 employees quarantined.

Many Kentucky school districts have already transitioned to remote learning as COVID-19 cases increase in their communities. All but 13 counties are in the state's "red zone" for COVID-19 transmission Wednesday with incidence rates topping 25 new daily cases per 100,000 residents based on a seven-day rolling average.

Beshear and state health officials had recommended schools in such counties transition to virtual instruction until local COVID-19 caseloads drop.

Both Kentucky Education Commissioner Jason Glass and Lu Young, chairwoman of the Kentucky Board of Education, agreed with the decision to temporarily close schools, Beshear said.

"The governor's executive orders provide clarity that's much needed across the state, and it's time," Glass told WDRB News. "We've seen the increasing numbers in positivity rates, in hospitalization rates and in death rates. It's just time that we took action on this."

Glass said he had not had time to discuss Beshear's executive order with local school leaders, but he expected districts would follow the governor's directive and halt in-person instruction temporarily. Schools will still be allowed to provide targeted, in-person services to students who need them, he said.

While opinions on managing COVID-19 vary, Glass said current coronavirus spread throughout the state "creates incredible pressures" on mitigation steps taken by districts.

"We're seeing a great deal of disruption at schools because of all the quarantining, so it's really becoming impossible to operate schools normally," he said. "... We may see some people who disagree with it. Really, that is immaterial because the governor's executive order has the force of law."

Senate President Robert Stivers, R-Manchester, is among critics of Beshear's latest steps. Top lawmakers were not provided data to support "a blanket policy" to temporarily stop classroom instruction when Beshear briefed them before his Wednesday announcement, Stivers said in a news release.

"We are seeing the loss of a year of educational opportunities and destructive effects to the mental health of our youth," he said in a statement. "Kentucky is in a crisis, this is real, and the Governor needs to start consulting with us for the sake of the Commonwealth."

The Kentucky Education Association praised the governor's executive action to close classrooms, saying the "dramatic" move is necessary because COVID-19 "presents a clear and present danger to the entire state."

"Turning this situation around will take each of us – all of us – working together for the collective good," KEA said in a statement. "It is a test of our spirits, but it is also a test of our empathy and our humanity."

Many school districts had already transitioned to nontraditional instruction as COVID-19 cases spiked in their communities before Beshear's sweeping executive order. 

Toni Konz Tatman, chief communications officer for the Kentucky Department of Education, said of the 140 school districts currently in "red zone" counties, at least 91 have already transitioned to distance learning. At least 98 school districts are currently providing remote instruction only, she said.

Districts that defy Beshear's executive order can expect consequences since it "has the force of law," Glass said. "We need to treat it as such."

If efforts to convince districts into compliance fail, Glass said school officials and board members could be removed from their positions. Professional licenses for teachers could also be at stake, he said.

"We hope we don't get to that point," Glass said. "... We need to get this virus under control."

Like bars and restaurants, Glass said schools will continue to operate "with some pretty significant restrictions."

"Once we get on the other side of the new year, we'll have to reassess and see where things are," he said.

Beshear initially recommended schools close at the onset of the pandemic in March, with public and private systems throughout the state transitioning to remote learning through the end of the 2019-20 school year.

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