As schools look into potentially reopening this fall, superintendents are unsure of exactly when schools will reopen and what a fall reopening will look like.

In mid-March, Kentucky public schools closed to in-person classes due to concerns about the novel coronavirus (COVID-19). The Pike County Schools District and Pikeville Independent Schools District, like all of the districts statewide, provided non-traditional instruction (NTI) to their students for the rest of the school year.

Superintendents across Kentucky are now considering the viability of a potential fall reopening, and some of their students’ families have already started asking them for details on their schools’ reopening plans. After meeting with state health officials this week about reopening, though, many of them said they now have more questions than answers.

Pike County Schools Superintendent Reed Adkins said that he has already been asked by several parents about when the district will reopen to in-person classes in the fall. He said, though, that the situation is still changing and there are many questions that have been left unanswered, which has caused him to hesitate on deciding when and how his district will reopen in the fall.

“The health and safety of our students is our top priority,” Adkins said. “We plan to follow all of the state’s guidelines to protect our students, but we haven’t received enough guidance yet to make a decision on reopening.”

David Trimble, who will become Pikeville Independent Schools District’s superintendent starting July 1, said that he hopes the district can reopen in August, but he understands that there are a lot of limitations that the districts currently face with making that possible. He said that he is working with district officials to make sure they continue to provide quality education to their students, even if their students and teachers cannot physically meet in the classroom in the fall.

“Our goal is to provide a normal education setting for our kids, and that’s going to be our number one focus and our number one desire,” Trimble said. “But we’re working hard to make sure that, if it does impact us and depending on how things play out, that we do have a plan in place where we can provide our kids with the best possible education.”

The Kentucky Department of Public Health (DPH) met with the state’s 172 superintendents during a webcast on May 26 to discuss reopening school buildings in the fall. DPH Commissioner Steven Stack told the superintendents that a vaccine for the novel coronavirus (COVID-19) will not be available until at least 2021. For that reason, he said, schools will face challenges as they plan for a potential reopening.

“We don’t have a vaccine and we won’t have one this year, so it’s not going to help you for a school year,” Stack said. “We don’t currently have a treatment and we’re not likely to get one before the school year is fully underway, so you have to plan assuming there’s no treatment. What we have to do is rely on social distancing and other public health measures to reduce the risk of infection.”

According to the Kentucky Department of Education, Stack told the district administrators that social distancing will be extremely important in order for their schools to reopen, citing recommendations made by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), the nation’s leading health organization.

For social distancing to work in a school setting, students will need to be kept a minimum of six feet away from one another, and the CDC recommended that students be seated in every other seat while being transported on the school bus. Some superintendents raised concerns about the practicalities of transporting students like that on school buses.

When asked about how this would work, Stack acknowledged that this will be a challenge for districts, and he said he did not have an answer for them, according to KDE.

Regarding face masks, some superintendents asked about whether staff and students would be required to wear masks when they re-enter the school buildings.

According to KDE, Stack said he believes that the current guidance on wearing masks will be “a part of everyday life for Kentuckians for the foreseeable future.” However, he added that students who may not be able to wear masks, like special needs students with sensory issues, should not be asked to wear them. Teachers are strongly encouraged to continue wearing a mask when working with the child.

DPH has recommended for schools to consider grouping students together. According to KDE, this could mean that schools group students together in homeroom, and then teachers would move from class to class in order to reduce the number of contacts within the building. By limiting contacts, according to KDE, officials believe it will make it easier to conduct the recently introduced contact tracing program.

Superintendents expressed concern during the meeting with placing students in homeroom and having teachers rotate because of scheduling conflicts with students and because most teachers are not certified to teach multiple subjects.

Jan Bright, manager of DPH’s Child and Family Health Improvement Branch, said in a statement from KDE that she recommended grouping students with similar schedules together.

“It’s going to be important to think about as you look at class schedules to try and group students who have similar schedules where they can be grouped for long periods of time,” Bright said.

As superintendents plan for a potential reopening, though, Interim Education Commissioner Kevin Brown recommended that they include plans for non-traditional instruction, as well as plans for a traditional in-person classroom setting.

According to KDE, the Kentucky Board of Education approved waivers during its March 18 meeting to allow all of Kentucky’s school districts to join the NTI program. This waiver was only applicable for the 2019-20 school year, and districts will again only be allowed 10 NTI days starting next school year. When superintendents expressed concern to state officials about having this restriction in place, Brown reassured them that they will likely have additional NTI days in the fall.

“We are going to do that through the governor’s emergency executive order authority,” Brown said. “Even if we did not do it through that authority, I am confident that the General Assembly would have gone back and made that retroactive when they meet in January.”

Some superintendents at the meeting said they “are not optimistic about a fall reopening.”

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