LOUISVILLE, Ky. (WDRB) – Public schools across Kentucky will close for at least two weeks starting Monday, heeding the recommendation from Gov. Andy Beshear in the state's attempt to limit the spread of the novel coronavirus known as COVID-19.
Beshear, who announced the closures of Kentucky's 172 school districts during a news conference Friday afternoon, urged school leaders Friday morning to allow their employees to work from home as feasible during his recommended two-week cessation of in-person instruction amid the COVID-19 pandemic.
The Kentucky School for the Blind, Kentucky School for the Deaf and 53 area technology centers will also follow Beshear's directive, the governor announced.
"I can't thank those folks enough," Beshear said, noting that schools across the country have closed to mitigate the coronavirus's spread. "This is the most effective if everybody does their part. We appreciate people taking this aggressive but ultimately necessary step."
Beshear also announced Friday that Kentucky has at least three new positive COVID-19 cases, pushing the state's total to at least 14. At least three of them are in Jefferson County, though Beshear and his office would only say that one of the new cases announced Friday involved a Jefferson County resident and another a Montgomery County resident.
The first coronvirus patient, from Harrison County, has tested negative twice and been released from the hospital, Beshear said. The patient previously was in serious condition.
Jefferson County Public Schools, Anchorage Independent and many Louisville-area private school systems have followed Beshear’s advice and announced lengthy cancellations of classes to help prevent the spread of the novel coronavirus.
That means most schools in Louisville will be closed for three weeks because of spring break and are scheduled to resume classes April 6.
Beshear said superintendents should allow teachers and other staff to work remotely during the closures if possible.
"Any employee out there that can effectively work from home and that works for the business or for the school, they should be allowed to work from home," he said. "There are going to be areas where we need people to come in. Again, just practice social distancing."
Kevin Brown, interim education commissioner, said he supported Beshear’s call for school districts to allow its employees to work from home if possible, saying that option complies with the state’s non-traditional instruction program.
“It would be best if folks work remotely because that is the ultimate way of ensuring social distancing during this time,” Brown said during an online conference with superintendents from across Kentucky that was open to the public.
If districts aren’t comfortable allowing teachers to telecommute during NTI days, Brown said they could be asked to report to work.
However, he urged districts to practice social distancing inside school buildings if teachers and other employees come to work.
“Do not bring teachers into the auditorium 100 at a time or 20 at a time,” Brown said. “If you’re on an NTI day, the teachers are there to be providing support to students and to facilitate that NTI day.”
That means teachers and other employees should spend much of their time in their classrooms or offices.
The state is looking for a waiver from the U.S. Department of Agriculture to allow schools that are closed to limit the spread of COVID-19 to continue serving federally funded meals, Brown said.
Harrison County Schools Superintendent Harry Burchett said his district is funding its two meal delivery sites on its own. Beshear and Brown have urged school districts to continue feeding students during the coronavirus closures, which will mean food service staff will be needed on site.
“I know there’s frustration out there. I know you feel like you’re receiving mixed messages,” Brown said.
“What we are saying is there’s public health benefit to having food service,” he added. “If you have food service, you do have to have some people in your building, your food service folks, to fix the food. If you also have your teachers in your building even though they’re sprinkled through the building in their classrooms, that’s 25 more individuals in your building, so let’s reduce, if we can, let’s reduce that by 25.”
At JCPS, the two-week closure before spring break will be treated as if the district closed for inclement weather. While non-mandatory instructional materials will be distributed to students physically and digitally, JCPS teachers will not be required to report to their schools.
JCPS is providing meals at 37 school sites and eight mobile sites from 10 a.m. until 1 p.m. Monday through Friday during the closure.
The last day of school for students is scheduled for June 10 unless days missed to mitigate the spread of coronavirus are forgiven by lawmakers, something JCPS Superintendent Marty Pollio told reporters he hopes will happen this session.
Pollio said discussions on the matter with Beshear and legislators have been "good."
The real concern, he said, "is how long this could go."
"What we don't want to do is, clearly, have our students into late June and into July, not having graduations, not knowing when the end of school is," Pollio said. "So we're going to need some support from lawmakers."
Brown said he expected lawmakers to take action on relief for school districts.
"I believe there is a lot of support in the General Assembly to increase the number of NTI days permitted from 10 to about 20, and if we have to have more than that, we can address that as well," he said.
If not, he said the Kentucky Department of Education will likely seek executive action from Beshear to help school districts that needed to close to try to contain the spread of COVID-19.
The Kentucky General Assembly is considering an emergency bill that would double the capacity of the state's non-traditional instruction program from 10 days to 20 during public health emergencies, which Beshear has declared amid the COVID-19 outbreak.
House Bill 461 would also give districts more flexibility to reach the 1,062 instructional hours that schools must provide. If districts can't hit that mark by June 12 after requesting assistance from KDE, waivers may be granted to end classes by that date if the legislation becomes law.
Schools could also scheduled graduations before the last day of classes, according to HB 461.
A proposed floor amendment from Rep. Steve Riley, a Glasgow Republican and chair of the budget review subcomittee on K-12 education, would expand the state's NTI program to 30 days rather than 20 and grant up to 30 days of emergency leave to teachers and other staff if districts' school boards deem them necessary because of the coronavirus closures.
It would also require KDE to seek federal waivers for state assessments and accountability measures, something the U.S. Department of Education has indicated it will offer in response to widespread school closures throughout the country as COVID-19 spreads.
However, the House won't be able to act on the HB 461 until at least Tuesday after legislative leaders suspended their business at the Capitol.
Beshear’s push to close schools may also impact advanced placement and college entrance exams.
Shipments of K-PREP materials have been delayed for a few weeks, and AP and ACT tests have not yet suspended test dates. That could change, however, if test centers are closed.
Kentucky’s emergency makeup date for the school-administered ACT is April 14, and those students who need testing accommodations are scheduled to have until April 24 to complete the exam.
Brown has said he will seek a waiver from the Kentucky Board of Education so more school districts can join the state's NTI program for the remainder of the 2019-20 school year.
Eighty-three of Kentucky's 172 school districts participate in the program. Brown said Friday afternoon that another 69 have asked to join through the abbreviated application process.
Beshear also directed state boards to conduct meetings via video conferencing during the coronavirus pandemic.
The Kentucky Board of Education is currently scheduled to meet in Louisville on Wednesday. Brown said Friday that the meeting will likely be conducted in Frankfort and be broadcast online.
Brown said the Kentucky School Boards Association will offer guidance for school boards that want to conduct business via video conferencing.
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