Governor's Call with Superintendents

By Jim Gaines

Kentucky Gov. Andy Beshear asked superintendents of the state’s 171 school districts Aug. 10 to delay opening schools for in-person instruction until the week of Sept. 28 due to high number of Kentuckians testing positive for COVID-19, especially among children.

Dr. Steven Stack, commissioner of the Kentucky Department for Public Health (DPH), said the most recently reported test positivity rate is about 6%, 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’s possible the rate may be higher. He believes those results will show COVID-19 is still spreading rapidly in many counties.

On a call with the superintendents before his regular 4 p.m. news conference, Gov. Beshear said it is an unprecedented situation that affects many areas of life, including childcare and education.

“This isn’t easy on anybody. Not our families, not our kids, not our administrators,” he said. “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.

Beshear said four factors prompted him to ask for the delay:

  • A high level of total COVID-19 cases and a correspondingly high positive test rate;
  • An increasing number of infections among children, both in Kentucky and nationwide;
  • Outbreaks already occurring in states that have attempted reopening schools, including Indiana and Georgia; and
  • Families still going on vacations in COVID-19 hot spots, then returning to Kentucky.

Based on discussions with health professionals, Beshear said he believes it is now too dangerous to reopen schools for in-person instruction on Aug. 17 or 24. While the delay will be difficult, Beshear said, it will give his July 10 mandate to wear masks in public more time to work, provide time to focus health resources on counties experiencing outbreaks, and let school districts be flexible in setting their school calendars or beginning distance learning.

Beshear said he wants to see children back in class, including his own.

“But right now I know – I know – that we would see significant outbreaks in just about all of our school districts should we go back in one week or two weeks,” he said.

Interim Commissioner of Education Kevin C. Brown said the Department of Education 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 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 wants to give districts the flexibility to make this as easy as possible for students, he said. The Kentucky Department of Education (KDE) and DPH will be working on guidance for those situations.

Cheser also asked whether schools should plan to cancel sports. 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. Again, Beshear said, that’s acceptable so long as numbers are kept small, times are staggered and they distance as much as is practical.

Fletcher asked how his district could get a report on COVID-19 positivity for Lawrence County.

Stack replied that calculating even the statewide rate is a “very manual process,” and there is currently no way to figure it at the county level.

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 believes that will continue. However, if a district does not abide by the governor’s recommendation, Brown said 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.