FRANKFORT – Gov. Andy Beshear on Monday announced a new recommendation that schools remain closed to in-person classes until Monday, Sept. 28.
Beshear made the public announcement of the new guidance for schools planning for the fall semester during Monday’s COVID-19 press briefing, an hour after he spoke to the state’s superintendents during a videoconference. Beshear said he had made the decision after consulting with teachers and school administrators across the state.
“Our recommendation today is that schools wait to begin in-person classes until Sept. 28,” Beshear said. “Yes, that’s six weeks from now, but it’s also six weeks from what I hope is the peak of this virus, six weeks from the last three weeks where we have been at an all-time high week in and week out, six weeks from a time when we just had a 6 percent positivity rate. Let’s face it, we’re trying really hard and we’ve taken good steps. Masks are working. But we do not have control over this virus. And to send tens of thousands of our kids back into in-person classes when we don’t have control of this virus, it’s not the right thing to do for these kids, it’s not the right thing to do for their faculty and it’s not the right thing to do as governor.”
Beshear said the decision was driven by four factors: Kentucky’s cases being near a peak, an increase in infection rates among children across the U.S., the experience of school districts in other states and families continuing to travel to hotspots for vacations against the advice of health officials.
“I think what all of the health care specialists said when we talked about reopening, is we need to be looking at a decline. In other words, we need to get our positive rate down,” Beshear said. “On top of that, what we’re seeing are more outbreaks and more infections in kids. The two hardest things I do every day is read the deaths and the number of kids infected under 5. And it’s not just kids under 5. We’re having record numbers of children that are infected, and it shows this infection spreads to them when we still don’t know the long-term impact. What we do know is children have a harder time social distancing. And we can’t put a whole bunch of them in a classroom with a teacher right now. Other states that have tried to open this new school year are now having to close. We don’t want to start and stop. That may be more difficult on our children.”
In an email, Calloway County Schools Superintendent Tres Settle said he understood the reasoning behind the recommendation, but he thought it was extremely disappointing and difficult for families to deal with.
“The news that Gov. Beshear is now recommending that schools not resume in-person classes until Sept. 28, albeit respected and understood in the context of communal safety, is extremely disheartening on several fronts,” Settle said. “Although we probably have all learned by now that we live in a time where nothing is certain, except perhaps change, these decisions nonetheless create genuine hardships on not only local school districts but entire communities as well.
“As a parent, I can relate to the frustrations of trying to make plans for child-care and educational services while simultaneously trying to provide for our families with the continuance of our own careers and responsibilities to our employers. I apologize in earnest to our parents who depend on our schools being open to in-person classes to accommodate these basic needs. This news is a setback to months of planning to allow children to return to school, but will not deter us in our efforts to provide the very best education possible for our students.
“I will be consulting with our board members in coming days about our options for beginning the school year on schedule with our distance-learning platforms. It is my intent at this time that we would move forward as planned with our Aug. 24 start date out of respect for our community and that we provide as firm of a calendar as possible so that parents are not left in limbo as to what may or may not happen as we approach the Sept. 28 date, now designated as the start of in-person instruction.
“It may well be that we extend our distance-learning for all children beyond this date just to give parents the peace of mind in knowing something definitive. These decisions will be made as quickly as possible by our board members with feedback from both our staff and community stakeholders. Until such time, I would ask for the continued patience of the community as we work this frustrating puzzle together and encourage our parents continue to monitor district social media and websites for the most updated information.”
Murray Independent School District Superintendent Coy Samons issued a short public statement indicating plans to begin virtual instruction.
“Today, Governor Andy Beshear recommended that in person classes not begin until September 28, 2020,” Samons said. “My office will recommend to the Board of Education to begin online learning for all students of Murray Independent on August 24, 2020. My office will provide more details in the near future.”
A news release from the Kentucky Department of Education said that Dr. Steven Stack, commissioner of the Kentucky Department for Public Health (DPH), said the most recently reported test positivity rate of about 6% is above the level considered safe for reopening in Healthy at Work guidelines. Stack said a vendor’s technology change has caused a two- or three-day backlog in some infection reports, so it is possible the rate may be higher. He said he believes those results will show COVID-19 is still spreading rapidly in many counties.
During the call with the superintendents, Beshear said, “This isn’t easy on anybody. Not our families, not our kids, not our administrators. This is our Spanish flu. This is our version of the plague, in many ways.”
Representatives from diocesan schools, the Kentucky Non-Public Schools Commission and the state’s educational co-ops also joined the call.
Interim Commissioner of Education Kevin C. Brown said KDE agrees with the governor’s recommendation, and that he’s heard supportive feedback from some superintendents. Of 149 districts reporting by Aug. 10, most planned to open with blended instructional models, offering both in-person and non-traditional instruction (NTI) at parents’ choice. Twenty-seven districts planned to open for NTI only, and nine for hybrid learning with alternating in-person and NTI daily schedules. None said they intended to open for in-person instruction only at first.
Projected periods of offering school through those models ranged from one week to all year, with many districts saying they would frequently re-evaluate their models based on the health situation.
Brown said Kentucky schools and educational groups have worked all summer to improve non-traditional instruction (NTI) and students’ access to distance-learning technology, so he thought this fall should go more smoothly than spring 2020, when schools switched to NTI on short notice.
Karen Cheser, superintendent of Fort Thomas Independent Schools, asked if any students could be allowed in school buildings during the delay, such as to meet teachers. Beshear said that is allowable as long as groups are carefully controlled and kept to 10 or fewer students at a time. He said he wants to give districts the flexibility to make this as easy as possible for students, and that KDE and DPH will be working on guidance for those situations.
Cheser also asked whether schools should plan to cancel sports, and Beshear said the state still is awaiting a final recommendation from the Kentucky High School Athletic Association (KHSAA).
“But I always want to place school, and our opportunities for school, before sports,” he said.
The KHSAA board is scheduled to meet Aug. 20, Brown said.
Lawrence County Schools Superintendent Robbie Fletcher asked if teachers could enter school buildings to work during NTI. Beshear said that would be acceptable so long as numbers are kept small, times are staggered and they distance as much as is practical.
Beshear said the latest rankings available from the Trump Administration show 53 of Kentucky’s 120 counties in the highest category of infection. Those counties are spread across the state, so he would advise looking at the situation at least regionally rather than one county at a time.
Brown said he had received one question on what would happen if a district decided to start in-person classes soon regardless of Beshear’s recommendation. Thus far, all Beshear’s requests to schools have been through recommendations, not orders, and districts have done very well in complying voluntarily, Brown said. He said he believes that will continue, but if a district does not abide by the governor’s recommendation, the district can expect to receive a call from state education and health officials.
Further questions will be addressed on the Superintendents’ Webcast on Aug. 11, Brown said.