LOUISVILLE, Ky. (WDRB) -- Kentucky superintendents hope Gov. Andy Beshear’s guidance for offering in-person instruction in counties hit hardest by COVID-19 will include more data and changes to the state’s coronavirus incidence rate map, which Beshear defended Thursday as "some of the best data" available to the state.
The Kentucky Association of School Superintendents submitted its reopening recommendations Wednesday. Among its suggestions, KASS wants the state to “abandon a single metric” and include factors like local hospitalizations, intensive care admissions and school-level quarantine numbers in determining when it is safe for in-person instruction.
Beshear ordered schools to halt in-person instruction ahead of the Thanksgiving holiday, with elementary schools allowed to reopen Monday if their counties were not in the highest category for COVID-19 transmission. Middle and high schools will be allowed to resume classroom instruction Jan. 4, with Beshear’s administration preparing guidance for classroom learning in “red zone” counties next week.
The governor said Thursday that his guidance may come as soon as Monday or, at the latest, Tuesday.
“There is not a one-size-fits-all solution for every school district in Kentucky,” KASS Executive Director Jim Flynn wrote in a Wednesday letter detailing the group’s suggestions. “Allow local decision-makers to determine the best decision for reopening using the best data, science, and conditions in the local community and region to drive the decision-making process.”
Flynn said Thursday that superintendents want the state to raise thresholds in Kentucky’s COVID-19 incidence rate map, which currently designates “red” counties as those with rates above 25 daily coronavirus cases per 100,000 residents based on a seven-day rolling average.
“It ought to be aligned to a threshold that would keep our hospitals and health systems from getting overwhelmed but yet allow us to remain open,” Flynn said. “I think most people have found that the 25-per-100,000 rate doesn’t overwhelm the hospital systems.”
Beshear said the incidence rate map was requested and agreed upon by stakeholders.
“There’s not liking the outcome, but that is some of the best data on what is going on in your community," he said during a virtual news conference Thursday.
Some school leaders have been frustrated with Beshear’s unilateral decision to shutter every classroom in Kentucky amid a third escalation of COVID-19. The governor has defended his decision by saying high coronavirus incidence and testing positivity rates make closing schools necessary.
Fleming County Schools Superintendent Brian Creasman is among the most vocal critics of the move. School districts crafted extensive reopening plans to deliver instruction during the COVID-19 pandemic and consult with local health officials before deciding whether to continue in-person learning or transition to nontraditional instruction, he said.
“We are trying to develop a generic, cookie-cutter approach to a very complicated emergency,” Creasman said.
“We’re trying our best to make decisions that are best for our communities and I get that the governor is trying to make decisions for the whole state, but when we clump everything, all the districts together, we’re going to have more problems by doing that because we’re not looking at what’s going on in those communities,” he said.
But Beshear said superintendents have complained publicly about his decision to shutter schools and privately called his office saying, “Don’t put this pressure on us.” He noted that about 10,000 students were quarantined at the time of his executive order.
“You can’t have it both ways,” Beshear said. “We reached a point where it was no longer safe.”
Creasman, the 2020 Kentucky superintendent of the year, said he never asked the governor to close schools.
Creasman rankled some on social media Wednesday by claiming state leaders have taken an “easier and politically advantageous” stance on closing classrooms during the COVID-19 pandemic while schools remained open during the Cuban Missile Crisis.
Comparisons between a weekslong confrontation over Soviet nuclear weapons installations during the Cold War and a deadly pandemic that has spanned months aside, Creasman said his point was that leaders need to make tough decisions with the best interest of children in mind.
“We know in Kentucky and especially in rural American that schools, for the most part, that’s all they have, many of our students,” Creasman said, noting the many wraparound services that schools provide students. “We have to make sure that we get students back in, and that requires leadership.”
School districts throughout Kentucky ceased in-person instruction in mid-March at Beshear’s recommendation, and 91 of the state’s 171 school districts had already transitioned to remote instruction because of local coronavirus spread ahead of the governor’s Nov. 18 executive order.
But Fleming County Schools and others decided not to follow other gubernatorial recommendations to delay the start of in-person instruction for the 2020-21 school year until Sept. 28 and transition to remote instruction once their counties hit red in the state’s incidence rate map.
Creasman stressed that he regularly consults with local health professionals this year, including when Fleming County’s COVID-19 incidence rate reached red in late October and early November.
The district did not stop classroom instruction after such consultations, he said.
“That’s where the local health department comes into play to give us real-time data that the Kentucky Department for Public Health may not have,” Creasman said. “You know, there’s 120 counties in Kentucky. There is no way one person or a group of people in Frankfort can really assess what’s going on in those communities.”
Stephanie Fryman, Fleming County’s health director, said local medical professionals decided that schools presented safe environments at the time despite high rates of COVID-19 transmission because few cases had been identified inside of buildings.
State data show that Fleming County’s coronavirus incidence rate hit a high of 53.9 on Oct. 24 and Oct. 25 before Beshear’s Nov. 18 executive order, with the county setting a new high of 72.5 on Nov. 26.
Fleming County’s incidence rate stood at 57.8 as of Thursday.
“We’ve taken quite a big hit here in the last couple of weeks, so hopefully we’ll start seeing a lower number,” Fryman said.
She believes it will be easier for rural counties to operate with high COVID-19 incidence rates than it will be for urban districts, which have denser populations and more coronavirus cases to track. Jefferson County Public Schools, Kentucky’s largest school district, has closed its classrooms since March.
Fleming County is a small county where “everybody kind of knows everybody,” which makes it easer to locate close contacts when COVID-19 cases are identified, she said.
“Do I think that we could operate safely? Yes, I think we can, but it’s going to be a challenge as well,” Fryman said. “It’s going to be a daily challenge to make sure that we’re getting the information out there.”
Creasman also worried about the logistics of developing and distributing reopening plans as school districts prepare to break for the holidays.
“We have to have time to communicate this to families,” he said. “… I think we’re creating some serious issues for families right now.”
The Kentucky Department of Education has been gathering feedback from various education groups and advisory councils as Beshear’s administration prepares its reopening guidance.
However, Creasman said the state should reach out to superintendents and other school leaders who have successfully offered classroom instruction during the 2020-21 school year after months of planning. KDE facilitated regular webinars for school leaders as they made – and revised – their reopening plans during the pandemic.
“I think it would be in their best interest to talk to superintendents and districts that opened successfully and remained open and how we’re using virtual and in-person classes to meet the needs of students,” he said.
Toni Konz Tatman, KDE’s chief communications officer, said the agency has undertaken “extensive” outreach efforts with stakeholders during the entirety of the COVID-19 pandemic.
Education Commissioner Jason Glass has held meetings this week with students, teachers, principals and parents about reopening in January, and he has also contacted associations representing superintendents, school board members, teachers and administrators as he formulates KDE’s recommendations to Beshear.
“Dr. Glass has been and will continue to be an advocate for ensuring local districts have what they need to continue educating their students, regardless of how that happens this school year,” Tatman said in an email.
Glass, Lt. Gov. Jacqueline Coleman and Kentucky Board of Education Chairwoman Lu Young have been “very receptive” to recommendations submitted by KASS, Flynn said.
“I’m hopeful based on the communications I’ve had that local decision-making authority will be a part of this process going forward,” he said. “… But at the same time, this virus has been unpredictable and things can change, and certainly we’re all going to have to be agile. There may be times even moving forward that the governor and our state public health experts will have to step in.”
Both Flynn and Creasman emphasized that school leaders who want to continue holding in-person classes do not have ill intent.
“All we’re trying to do is get to our kids because we know that’s what’s best, and we’re not asking to put anyone in harm’s way because I think we can do this safely,” Creasman said. “… We’ve been sidelined and boards have been sidelined when all we’ve tried to do is do what education professionals are trained to do.”
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