By Jim Gaines
Officials from the Kentucky Department of Education (KDE), the Kentucky Department for Public Health (DPH) and Lt. Gov. Jacqueline Coleman discussed the COVID-19 pandemic and school reopening and took questions from teachers around the state during an online Town Hall on July 23.
The “Reopening Kentucky Schools: Virtual Town Hall for Educators and Staff” was aimed at school system employees, but was open to the public. More than 3,000 people watched the webcast.
Teachers and staff submitted more than 250 questions in advance, and panelists answered as many as they could that concerned state-level decisions and policy. Those they ran out of time for will be answered online on KDE’s COVID-19 FAQ page, said Kentucky’s interim education commissioner, Kevin C. Brown. Some questions were on matters that must be decided at the local district level, Brown said.
Presentations focused on KDE’s flagship document reopening schools amid COVID-19, the Healthy at School guidance developed in partnership with DPH and released June 24.
DPH on Risk Reduction
Dr. Steven Stack, DPH commissioner, discussed COVID-19 and efforts to control the disease. He said Kentucky had its first positive COVID-19 test on March 6, and models developed that month said the disease could kill 45,000 to 90,000 Kentuckians if it spread rapidly without mitigation.
There is no vaccine, no cure and no generally effective treatment, he said, and until a vaccine or cure developed, the spread must be controlled through social distancing, wearing cloth face masks, temperature checks, hand and surface hygiene and contact tracing.
“I know these things are disruptive, I know they’re inconvenient,” Stack said, while noting that 95% of Kentucky’s population still is probably susceptible to infection.
COVID-19 is spread primarily through respiratory droplets, and he said federal health officials say if 80% to 90% of the population followed basic mask and social distancing guidelines, the country could return to relatively normal activity.
One of the first questions the panel addressed was how to protect kindergarten and pre-K teachers since children below 1st grade are not required to wear masks.
Emily Messerli, DPH immunization branch manager, said hand-washing and surface hygiene is the most important way to prevent COVID-19 spread among unmasked young children., but all school staff members who come in contact with students of that age group need to wear masks at all times.
Asked about the requirement to keep student desks 6 feet apart, DPH Deputy Commissioner Dr. Connie White said that means each student should have a 6-foot diameter circle of separation from other people.
One question noted that health regulations say a person is considered exposed to COVID-19 if they are within 6 feet of a known carrier for 15 minutes or longer. They asked whether someone would not be considered exposed if those involved were masked and at least 6 feet apart.
“Yes and no,” White said. Contact tracers judge risk based on individual proximity, actions and protection, and she said if people stayed apart and wore masks, they would be at low risk.
But if they ate together, sitting close to one another while and not wearing masks, the risk would be high, she said.
“That high-risk exposure would lead to quarantine,” White said.
Stack said he does not think tighter across-the-board guidelines would work as well as judging each situation individually. For the foreseeable future, he said school districts should partner with their local health departments and follow the already released state guidance to operate schools.
Among the new rules is keeping careful track of where students go and who they’re seated with. While Stack said that documenting location will require some work for teachers, it will be vital for contact tracers to judge risk level.
Asked whether it’s safe to have 30 to 32 students close together if they’re wearing masks, Stack said absolute safety is impossible, but the science is solid on how well masks and social distancing decrease risk.
“We can reduce risk a lot if we do these things, but there is no absolute,” he said, adding that officials are trying to balance risk against essential functioning.
Kelly Foster, associate commissioner in KDE’s Office of Continuous Improvement and Support, walked through COVID-19-related guidance documents released by KDE. In addition to the Healthy at School guidance, KDE has issued more than a dozen documents that delve into specifics for the upcoming school year, all of which are available on the agency’s COVID-19 webpage, she said.
The page also contains links to about 20 resource documents from other organizations, Lt. Gov. Coleman said.
Brown urged everyone to read through the guidance, which he said could be updated as more information and public feedback come in.
Several statues and regulations have been waived to accommodate the changing COVID-19 situation. The first was allowing school districts an unlimited number of non-traditional instruction (NTI) days to providing digital learning options when necessary, Coleman said.
Others relax rules on attendance-based funding, employee leave, food service and more.
KDE Interim General Counsel Todd Allen said the added flexibility came in response to feedback from school districts, parents and teachers. More waivers are pending action by the state Board of Education in August, he said.
Brown said it is likely that the need for more waivers will become evident as the situation continues to change.
Participation vs. Attendance
Due to uncertainty about holding in-person classes, teachers won’t be officially recording attendance this year, said David Cook, division director for KDE’s Office of Continuous Improvement and Support.
Instead, they’ll record student participation via Infinite Campus. Cook said for in-person students, participation will be their presence and that for remote learners it can be measured in four ways: through individual phone or video calls; group phone or video contact; time spent logged into learning software; or submission of paper-based assignments.
Participation is defined as a measure of interaction between students and teacher, whether in person or remote, and it is not a measure of quality.
“That’s what grades are for,” Cook said.
As part of the waiver on the 10-day limit for NTI days, school districts can now schedule NTI days in advance, such as having everyone learn remotely one day a week, he said.
In addition to a formal NTI day, there are other types of NTI that don’t require a district to claim a full NTI day. So long as it is remote learning and not held in a traditional classroom, it is considered NTI, and can apply to individual students or an entire district, Cook said. This can include full-time virtual students who are not taught by their regular classroom teachers; school-based full-time virtual students who are still learning from their regular teachers; “blended learning” in which children alternate between in-person and remote instruction; and partial school closures.
Questions and Answers
The last half hour of the webcast was devoted to answering submitted questions.
Question: How will paid leave be granted if a school staff member contracts COVID-19, or needs to care for an affected family member?
Answer: Leave options are described in a document released this week, said Kay Kennedy, of KDE’s Office of Finance and Operations. Coleman signed a memorandum from Brown on July 21 that is the first step in giving local school boards more flexibility in offering emergency leave for school district employees affected by COVID-19. The memo waives the normal 3-day limit on emergency leave.
Brown will recommend an emergency regulation to the Kentucky Board of Education that, if approved, will provide local school districts with the flexibility to grant additional emergency leave similar to that granted under Senate Bill 177, which expired with the end of the 2019-2020 school year.
There are several other options for employee leave, including federal programs, so employees should work with their school district’s human resources department to determine the appropriate one, Kennedy said.
A flow chart for decision-making on extended leave also is available, Brown said.
Question: How will schools be monitored to assure Healthy at School guidelines are adhered to?
Answer: KDE will not be enforcing masking, but expects schools to act in good faith, Brown said. Much of it will be self-monitoring through local school boards, parents and other stakeholders.
Question: Will there be more guidance coming to determine eligibility for special education services?
Answer: KDE will continue a webcast discussing special education issues that began last semester, according to Associate Commissioner Gretta Hylton of KDE’s Office of Special Education and Early Learning. Suggestions for topics are being taken now.
The requirements of the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA) have not changed, but Kentucky is providing as much flexibility as the act will allow, Hylton said. It’s important to ensure Individual Education Programs (IEPs) are implemented while keeping the safety of students and staff a top priority, she said.
Question: What additional funding can school districts expect to deal with COVID-19 requirements?
Answer: The Coronavirus Aid, Relief, and Economic Security (CARES) Act provides several avenues for flexible funding, enabling personal protective equipment purchases and changes to food service, said Associate Commissioner Robin Kinney of KDE’s Office of Finance and Operations.
Brown urged people to contact members of Congress and advocate for more funding as many needs can’t be anticipated, and Gov. Andy Beshear already has said the state’s revenue picture is grim.
Question: Can you clarify mask expectations for students eating in the classroom?
Answer: When students are not wearing masks, such as for eating, they need to be kept 6 feet apart regardless of location, White said.
Question: What are the required steps when someone tests positive for COVID-19?
Answer: Testing labs will notify the health department in the infected person’s county of residence, White said. Contact tracing will start with the individual, asking about their contacts, proximity, level of protection, duration and location, she said.
Their contacts at high risk due to those factors will be told to quarantine, White said. That’s why it’s vital for schools to keep detailed manifests of student movements, because memories will be fuzzy after several days, she said.
Kentucky has funding to hire 800 contact tracers to supplement local health department staff. A team can be brought in to help as needed, White said.
A document on contact tracing for educators is available on the DPH website.
Question: Since up to 40% of people with COVID-19 may not show any symptoms, how does checking for a temperature of 100.4 degrees really help?
Answer: While many people don’t show symptoms, fever is the most common marker among those who do, White said. It’s easy to catch at least those people before they enter schools, she said.
Question: What should school staff do if they feel they’re in an unsafe environment?
Answer: They should first talk to their immediate supervisor or principal, Brown said. The school-based decision-making council (SBDM) also could be consulted, he said.
Associate Commissioner Kelly Foster of KDE’s Office of Continuous Improvement and Support said staff should speak with their principals first. If that is not productive, she suggests speaking to central office staff, school board members or the superintendent and local health department.
Question: Will there be extra protection for teachers at high risk of COVID-19 due to existing health conditions?
Answer: “Masks, social distancing and hygiene – that’s going to protect all of us,” White said.
Messerli said there should be discussion between the teacher and their principal and school district about specific medical needs and how to accommodate them.
Question: If someone tests positive for COVID-19, how long must they quarantine before being retested?
Answer: White said if a person tests positive, they must isolate. Then they must be symptom-free for 10 days before they can end isolation.
People they have been in contact with who might therefore have been exposed to COVID-19 would have to quarantine 14 days, the upper limit of the time it takes to develop symptoms, White said.
Question: Will teachers be required to take COVID-19 tests before returning to school?
Answer: The health department doesn’t have enough testing capacity to do that, White said. But even if someone has tested positive, if they meet the isolation criteria they don’t need to be retested, she said.
Question: Should students and staff be screened for other symptoms on arrival at school or just have their temperature checked?
Answer: It’s not practical to ask everyone a list of questions at the door, so only temperature checks are required, Messerli said. Many schools are sending home guidelines on symptoms and when to avoid attending, even having parents sign pledges that they won’t send children to school if they show any symptoms, she said.
Question: If a staff member qualifies for leave under the Families First Coronavirus Response (FFCR) Act, will they still be paid benefits through the school district while on leave, or through FFCR?
Answer: The U.S. Department of Labor (DOL) says on its FAQ sheet that school districts would continue to pay into employee benefits and employees would continue their own contributions, Allen said.
Question: Do classroom doors have to remain shut and locked or should they be open for better ventilation?
Answer: Eastern Kentucky University is offering training on COVID-19-related ventilation, White said, and health department environmentalists and KDE staff are learning through that how to improve air circulation while balancing safety and security needs, and that question will be addressed.
Question: If schools go entirely virtual, can staff and families sign permission for home visits? If not, how will schools serve special needs students?
Answer: There may be special education and related services that can’t be provided virtually for some. If this occurs, Admissions and Release Committees (ARCs) must reconvene to plan for compensatory education services, Hylton said.
MORE INFO …