MURRAY – Local school districts are using the Kentucky Department for Public Health’s new guidelines as they continue to plan for a very different re-opening this fall due to COVID-19.
KDE released its new guidelines for re-opening schools, known as “Healthy at School,” last Tuesday. The official guidance was developed after weeks of discussions between DPH and the Kentucky Department of Education, with input and feedback from superintendents and other school leaders across the state, a news release said. The DPH guidance covers multiple areas, such as mask-wearing, social distancing, health screening and sanitation.
Dr. Steven Stack, commissioner of DPH, said the guidance document is based on the best and latest information on how to limit transmission of the virus.
“We know some of these things might be difficult to do in schools, and we took that into consideration as we developed the guidance,” he said. “But these are the things we need to do to keep students and communities safe.”
Although circumstances are likely to change between now and August and much is still left to be decided, Calloway County Schools Superintendent Tres Settle said he is happy to have the guidance in hand as he and other administrators plan for the upcoming school year. The first day for students for both Calloway County Schools and the Murray Independent School District is currently scheduled for Aug. 5.
“I feel like we’ve got a solid recommendation now from the Department of Education and from (the Kentucky Department for Public Health), so it’s something that we can begin moving on and planning for,” Settle said. “Obviously, we are going to be looking at ordering PPE (personal protective equipment) for students and staff and also hand sanitizer. We are probably going to be ordering tape so we can mark our floors (to demonstrate proper social distancing).
“I would recommend to parents that they begin trying different face masks for their children because some are obviously more restrictive for breathing than others. The guidance says to wear a cloth mask, but the masks vary from styles and sizes and things of that nature. We will be looking at purchasing some for children who do not have those, but I would definitely guide parents in that direction and maybe even have their children begin wearing those from time-to-time and getting used to them.”
Settle said KDE is recommending keeping children six feet apart inside the classroom. In looking at classroom sizes, the district will be sending parents a survey this week asking about their intent of their children returning to school. Parents are encouraged to watch for the survey this week at www.calloway.kyschools.us/ and social media. Settle said parents will also be informed by phone through the OneCallNow system, and he would like to get as close to 100% participation as possible so that administrators can work with solid data.
Settle said he believed most elementary school classrooms could fit 12-15 students under the six-feet-apart recommendation, and he added that East and Southwest Calloway elementary schools currently have a couple of extra classrooms, which could help with spacing.
“We are looking at all those parameters and also looking at virtual options for those individuals who choose not to come back on a traditional schedule,” Settle said. “We are going to encourage everyone to come back because we feel like the quality of education is so much greater when you have a teacher in front of a student.”
MISD Superintendent Coy Samons said he is putting together a planning team consisting of the principals, the instructional supervisor, the director of pupil personnel and the transportation and food service directors.
“We’ll be determining what exactly these mandates from Frankfort will look like, such as being six feet apart or wearing masks,” Samons said. “(We’re looking at how) social distancing would impact our food service. Can we reconfigure or re-utilize some other spaces to accommodate our food service program, and exactly what it looks like when kids get to school in the morning, as far as doing temperature checks. I think a lot of it is going to be doable; it’s just working out the (specifics) on how to make this work. At our middle school, for example, in a 20- to 30-minute span, you’ve got 600-700 students coming in at one time and you’ve got 100-plus employees. We’ve got to work on that.”
Samons said the district will encourage families to provide their children with masks if they are able, but the district will also provide masks for students who need them. He said dozens, if not hundreds of hand sanitizer wall mounts had already been ordered to place in every classroom, as well as in the hallways.
Samons said he could not say at this time whether Kids Company, Murray Elementary’s after-school program, would be available this year or not, adding that the program runs under the same license as daycare facilities. Those regulations would currently make it difficult for Kids Company to function as it normally does, he said.
“We are keeping our eyes open on that as those regulations continue to be tweaked,” Samons said. “My hope and desire is to open the program back up as soon as possible, but we will be keeping a watch on those restrictions.”
Like Settle, Samons said that despite the difficult circumstances, he is looking forward to getting back to in-person instruction.
“I want to assure our stakeholders and our community partners that we want to do our best possible job that we can do to provide a solid educational experience for our students this upcoming school year,” he said.
The 24-page guidance document, titled “Safety Expectations and Best Practices Guidelines for Kentucky Schools (K-12),” may be viewed at https://education.ky.gov/comm/Documents/Safety%20Expectations_FINAL%20DOC.pdf. The document says masks will be required any time students and staff are moving or cannot stay six feet apart, unless there is a medical reason they cannot do so. Stack said masks are the one thing public health officials know can prevent the spread of the virus, along with washing hands and maintaining social distance. Masks may be lowered during classroom time if all students and staff are seated at least six feet apart and no people are walking inside the classroom.
Schools also will be expected to stagger arrival times, increase space between students and reduce class sizes and congestion in common areas. Temperature checks using a touchless thermometer will be required for all students and staff at the point of entry to school property. To ride the school bus, parents must attest that the student’s temperature is not greater than 100.4 when boarding or districts may choose to do a temperature check when students board buses.
The document includes bullet points with the safety expectations and best practices, and an “at-a-glance” summary at the end of each section aimed at younger children. The news release said the guidelines were designed to not only be clear for school administrators and staff, but families and students as well.
“One of my top priorities as we have fought against the coronavirus is ensuring our children can safely return to school in the fall,” Gov. Steve Beshear said in the release. “Our top health experts and our educators have worked together to craft this guidance to take the necessary steps to protect our children and our dedicated staff as they return to school.”
Interim Commissioner of Education Kevin C. Brown said DPH’s guidance is the “best solution given these extraordinary circumstances. We feel confident we are in a good place with this, given the many challenges we have had to overcome. We know the challenges schools are facing, as nothing could have prepared them for this.”
The guidance document from DPH differentiates between “safety expectations,” which schools are expected to comply with, and “best practices,” which they also may choose to follow to further protect students and staff. While schools will develop their own reopening plans based on the guidance, Brown said “best judgment and good faith are expected.”
Guidance in the document falls into five categories: social distancing; cloth face coverings, school health policies and personal protective equipment; screening and school exclusion; sanitation and environmental factors; and contact tracing.