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LOUISVILLE, Ky. (WDRB) -- Stephen Pruitt, president of the Southern Regional Education Board and Kentucky’s former education commissioner, said the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic presents a “pivot point” for K-12 education throughout the country as schools continue to adjust to distance learning.

Most states, including Kentucky and the 15 other members of SREB, have transitioned to some form of remote education for the rest of the 2019-20 school year in response to the novel coronavirus outbreak.

Pruitt, co-chair of SREB’s K-12 Education Recovery Task Force, sees a changing educational landscape in which school systems throughout the nation are forced to make major leaps in their instructional models after the sudden emergence of COVID-19, which has prompted states throughout the U.S. to impose strict public health restrictions in hopes of slowing its spread.

“This has caused us to really stop and take stock of what is it we should be about, how do we address the needs of each child,” Pruitt told WDRB News. “We just have to recognize the world’s just never going to be the same, and if we don't change with that, then I don't believe we can ever get there.

“You can't be the Jetsons while you're thinking like the Flintstones, and we've got to have a little bit more Jetsons thinking to get into the next realm.”

The K-12 Education Recovery Task Force, which includes interim Education Commissioner Kevin Brown and Associate Commissioner Kelly Foster, is developing strategies for districts in the 16 member states to reopen the doors of their schools to students.

The group of education leaders met for the first time last week and drafted three priorities for its recovery plan: protecting the safety of students and staff, providing academic acceleration and emotional support for youth, and keeping families informed.

At this point, Pruitt says the task force has more questions than answers as it explores the best ways schools can safely reopen their classrooms.

“There's no research that actually substantiates how to do a mass closure reopening like this, so we're looking at everything we can, including talking to people who experienced Katrina in Louisiana and looking at any of the research we can to just support students given this type of traumatic disruption to their education experience,” he said.

The potential learning loss during school closures forced by the COVID-19 outbreak is “a real concern” for Pruitt, who says it will take “several years” before educators can fully realize the impact of lost classroom instruction time.

He’s seen data models that point to something similar to a “summer slide,” the concept that students lose academic achievement gains during summer breaks, happening during closures prompted by the coronavirus.

While he’s optimistic that at-home instruction can prevent such a drop in learning, Pruitt says schools will need to identify students that have struggled once the 2020-21 academic year begins so they can begin interventions in areas like reading and math.

“You're not going to start in August or whenever like you always have,” he said. “You can't hope that I'm going to start teaching and kids will just catch up because hope's not a strategy. We're going to have to have a very specific focus on having teachers diagnose their students.”

How COVID-19 will impact the upcoming school year remains to be seen. Pruitt said SREB’s task force hopes to explore ways schools can safely reopen in following public health guidelines that may be in place later this year.

Districts must consider the financial implications of proposals like allowing students to attend classes in staggered groups, he said.

“Are you going to disinfect the buses in between having one set get off and the other set and get on?” Pruitt said in reference to an idea he’s heard of holding morning and afternoon class sessions. “You’re going to be doubling your transportation budget. As you know, in Kentucky that's a big deal.

“What I hope that our task force does is it identifies and outlines all of the issues around any of those possibilities so that when people do talk about those and they make plans, they're actually making plans from an informed perspective as opposed to something that just kind of sounds good at the time.”

Classroom learning isn’t the only aspect of education that may look different in the 2020-21 school year if the threat of COVID-19 persists.

Julia Bauscher, director of school and community nutrition services for Jefferson County Public Schools, said her team is looking at different ways meals can be served if social distancing guidelines continue into next school year.

“The current CDC recommendations are that students eat in their classroom instead of in the cafeteria, so we're already looking at what do our menus look like if that is the case and how do we deliver the meals to the classroom,” she told WDRB News.

Pruitt believes distance learning will become a tool that school districts throughout the U.S. utilize not just during public health crises like COVID-19, but also in response to inclement weather and natural disasters.

Nontraditional instruction has also exposed the digital divides that exist in urban and rural communities alike.

Closing that gap will require “good guidance” and “good support” from federal and state governments as well as an understanding of how many students lack digital access, Pruitt said.

JCPS has provided some 20,000 Chromebooks and 6,000 data hotspots to families that need them most, but Superintendent Marty Pollio has said getting a complete tally of how many students lack digital access is difficult in the midst of a global pandemic. A district survey last year found that about 90% of students had internet at home or through mobile data plans, he said in March.

“I think the only way to two bridge that divide is first to understand how big that divide is and then make a plan for it,” Pruitt said.

He also praised Brown’s work in navigating the Kentucky Department of Education through the COVID-19 pandemic, saying his former deputy and general counsel has done “a dang good job” as interim commissioner.

“He’s really been a great source of consistency and has really supported the schools very well from what I can tell,” Pruitt said.

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