(FRANKFORT, KY) – In an hour-long phone call with Kentucky superintendents and Kentucky Department of Education (KDE) leadership on March 11, Gov. Andy Beshear asked education leaders to be prepared to close in response to widespread concern regarding the spread of the 2019 novel coronavirus (COVID-19).

 “At this point, we are asking all of our schools to be prepared on 72 hours notice, which means we could ask as early as Monday, for suspension of classes and school,” he said. “Those that have the capability to provide instruction remotely, be prepared to do that. Ultimately, we believe this will be up to each superintendent (to decide whether to close) when we make that call – it’s just this is moving really fast. Everything that we’re learning is changing almost daily and we need to be able to have the speed that, if we reach this point, to do it.”

If the recommendation to close schools comes, Beshear said, districts should be prepared to be closed one or two weeks. It also could mean some school districts’ normally scheduled spring break could add another week of no school.

Beshear told superintendents he’s prepared to take aggressive steps because “we are in a mitigation phase.”

“We will get through this,” Beshear said. “It is going to take all of our efforts.  Our lives are going to be a little different for at least the next month.”

“We truly believe if we make this recommendation, it will make a significant difference in our communities,” he added.

Earlier in the day, the (KDE) announced an opportunity for public school districts not currently participating in the Non-Traditional Instruction (NTI) Program – which allows instruction to continue even when school is called off due to weather or illness – to apply.

State regulation currently requires districts to submit applications for participation in the NTI Program at the at least 120 days prior to the beginning of a school year.

“I will ask the Kentucky Board of Education at their special meeting on March 18 to grant a blanket waiver to this regulation so that districts not currently participating in the NTI Program can go through this abbreviated application process and can show they are able to deliver quality, non-traditional instruction on days they may need to be closed at some point during the remainder of the 2019-2020 year,” Interim Commissioner Kevin C. Brown said.

Districts will have to get approval from their local board of education before submitting their plan to the state, he said.

Eighty-three of Kentucky’s 172 school districts were approved to participate in the NTI program during the 2019-2020 school year; the remaining 89 districts may take advantage of the abbreviated waiver opportunity.

Brown said that right now, there still is a limit of 10 NTI days as required by Kentucky statute, but legislators are looking at adding an additional 10 NTI days this school year due to the COVID-19 outbreak.

Brown said the state applied on March 9 for a waiver from the U.S. Department of Agriculture to allow school meals to continue to be served even if schools are closed due to COVID-19. Currently, federal regulations do not allow school meals to be eaten off-site. The waiver would allow schools to take meals out into the community or allow the meals to be picked up at the school and eaten somewhere else.

“If there are things to balance when it comes to (closing) schools, the meals they get and the care they need, I want you to know that is very important to us,” Beshear said. “My hope is in planning, you would consider these and let us know what we can do to help.”

One superintendent asked Brown if calling off school could possibly interrupt K-PREP assessments that are given to students in the last 14 instructional days of each district’s calendar in grades 3-8, 10 and 11.

 Brown said COVID-19 already has caused delays in taking the ACT for students in Harrison County schools, which has been closed this week due to an outbreak of five cases in the county. While missing school early in the year is not unusual due to bad weather, he said, having to close schools so close to testing dates has never happened before.

“We are going to consider all of our options,” Brown said. “This would be unprecedented. Our folks are already in conversations with our test vendors.”

Beshear thanked the superintendents for how well they were working together to minimize risks to students and the community at large. He asked them to remain calm, keep their buildings clean and continue to cooperate with their local health districts and the state.

He took a moment to praise Harrison County schools Superintendent Harry Burchett and other leaders “from the county judge to the local health department.” Harrison County had the first reported case of COVID-19 and is closed this week, but has utilized five NTI days.

“Given what they are facing, the calm they have, steps they are taking … it’s kind of leadership that if we are in that situation we need to emulate,” Beshear said.