LOUISVILLE, Ky. (WDRB) -- Gov. Andy Beshear’s recommendation that schools delay the offering of classroom instruction until at least Sept. 28 given Kentucky’s recent experience with COVID-19 has upended reopening plans for districts throughout the state as they prepare to begin the 2020-21 school year.
Some school districts have already heeded Beshear’s advice and announced plans to start the school year remotely with nontraditional instruction. Others, such as Jefferson County Public Schools, had already scheduled to begin the 2020-21 school year with distance learning.
Oldham County Schools Superintendent Greg Schultz, for instance, wrote a letter Tuesday to stakeholders that the district will require students to learn virtually until OCS is “allowed to resume in-person instruction.”
While he and members of the Oldham County Board of Education “may not like the recommendation, it is not wise or prudent to ignore the recommendation,” Schultz wrote. “Since this has moved from a local decision to a statewide decision, if we don’t follow the recommendation, our liability increases to an unacceptable risk.”
Joyce Fletcher, chairwoman of the school board, had shared a petition that had garnered more than 1,700 signatures on Facebook asking OCS to defy the governor’s recommendation and pursue its plans to start the 2020-21 school year with a mix of in-person and virtual learning on Aug. 24.
Fletcher wrote in the Facebook post that beginning the school year with nontraditional instruction “is not in the best interest of our students” and that Beshear had “overrode all of the work done” by Oldham County leaders and the school board to safely resume classroom instruction this month.
Other school leaders shared those sentiments.
Davonna Page, president-elect of the Kentucky School Boards Association and a member of the board at Russellville Independent Schools, said she felt “frustration” and “disappointment” when she learned of Beshear’s recommended delay for classroom instruction on Monday.
“It’s a difficult decision for anyone to make, and I know there’s a lot of public health information out there that would tend to support his decision,” she said. “I think that what has not been taken into consideration is the individual communities, their individual situations and the actual presence of the virus in each individual community.”
Like other school districts, Russellville Independent had planned for a mix of virtual and in-person classes for its 1,100 students to start the 2020-21 school year. About 200 students had signed up for the district’s distance learning program when she last checked around two weeks ago, Page said.
Page also believes school districts that don’t follow Beshear’s recommendation will expose themselves to legal liability if “something catastrophic happens,” a point echoed by Hardin County Schools Superintendent Teresa Morgan.
“We also have to look at the liability of putting our students and our staff at possible risk,” she said.
Eddie Campbell, president of the Kentucky Education Association, said his members have expressed mixed opinions about Beshear’s recommendation.
KEA had called on schools to delay classroom instruction for the 2020-21 school year until state and local COVID-19 positivity rates dropped below 4% for three consecutive weeks.
“I don’t think there’s an educator in the state of Kentucky that doesn’t want to go back to in-person with their students,” Campbell said. “They know how important it is to build those relationships, how important it is to be able to see and react to them in person, but at the same time they also know and understand that health and safety has to be a priority.”
“If they don’t feel safe and they don’t feel secure, then teaching and learning is going to be impacted,” he said, adding his belief that Beshear and Lt. Gov. Jacqueline Coleman are "true advocates for the health and safety" of students and educators.
Republican leaders in the state Senate urged Beshear to reconsider his recommendation and allow local school districts to decide what’s best for their communities.
“We have full confidence in Kentucky’s education professionals,” Senate GOP leaders wrote in their letter Tuesday. “Their innovation, adaptability, professionalism, and commitment is unmatched. We support districts deciding on their own to start in-person, virtually, or through a hybrid."
“We cannot apply a one size fits all model for our school districts, as what is best for Jefferson County may not be the same for Adair County," they wrote. "We fully support decisions made on the local level because they have the pulse and the ear of their communities’ safety and students’ best interest.”
Morgan said she wasn’t surprised by Beshear’s announcement Monday. She noted that the Hardin County Board of Education will ultimately decide how the district will begin the 2020-21 school year.
“To go with NTI at this point is disappointing,” she said. “However, we have to also realize the governor made this recommendation based on the information he has, and he has a much larger perspective than just Hardin County.”
Page expects few, if any, school districts will defy the governor’s directive.
“My feeling would be that they will not go against his recommendation,” she said, noting that she could not speak for all school districts.
“The recommendation is just that: a recommendation and not a mandate,” Page said. “However, the feeling is that if you go against the recommendation and open, you are possibly opening your district up to heightened liability and unaffordable litigation that may follow.”
But there will be consequences for districts that choose to ignore Beshear’s recommendation to delay the start of classroom learning until Sept. 28.
Interim Education Commissioner Kevin Brown said school leaders who plan to reopen their districts’ classrooms ahead of Sept. 28 can expect him to arrange a conference call with local district leaders; Lu Young, chairwoman of the Kentucky Board of Education; and Jason Glass, incoming education commissioner.
“My goal would be to have a different outcome at the end of the conversation,” he told superintendents during a statewide webcast Tuesday, adding that the Kentucky Department of Education planned to host a similar conference meeting with local school board members soon.
Beshear also has authority to issue executive orders during the pandemic, and Kentucky Department for Public Health Commissioner Steven Stack and local health departments can force school buildings to close during public health emergencies, Brown said.
Members of the Kentucky Board of Education could also pass emergency regulations “if they believe that the health and safety of the common schools are in jeopardy,” he said.
Districts could also face local consequences, such as COVID-19 outbreaks that attract attention from national media, he said.
“The primary thing is we’re going to be having a discussion, a very intimate discussion between those parties I described if your district is one that decides to defy the recommendation,” Brown said, adding later that it would be “irresponsible” to say school districts can definitely provide classroom instruction on Sept. 28.
Allison Slone, a non-voting member of the state education board and a special education teacher at Rowan County Schools, said she believes Beshear’s recommendation won’t affect his relationships with school leaders throughout Kentucky.
“We don’t always agree with people, but we’re all here for kids and we’re all here for the education of those kids and the safety of our employees, and I think at the end of the day they know he’s doing what’s best," Slone said.
“They may not like it and not everyone will, but he had to make tough decisions, and I sure wouldn’t want to be in his shows right now.”
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