KDE, health officials answer local school board member questions about COVID-19

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Local School Board Members Virtual Town Hall, August 13, 2020

Officials from the Kentucky Department of Education (KDE) and the Kentucky Department for Public Health (DPH) discussed the COVID-19 pandemic and the recommendation from Gov. Andy Beshear to delay in-person instruction to Sept. 28 during an online Town Hall on Aug. 13.

The “Reopening Kentucky Schools: Virtual Town Hall for Local School Board Members” was aimed at local school board members, but was open to the public.

During the two-hour webcast, Interim Education Commissioner Kevin C. Brown addressed the reasoning behind the governor’s recommendation, what happens if a school district doesn’t follow the recommendation and other factors districts should consider before making that decision.

“I want to be very clear: I fully support the governor’s recommendation,” Brown said, adding that the hope is that infection rates will decline enough by Sept. 28 so that schools can then remain open, controlling any outbreaks and avoiding future shutdowns. “The disease burden in Kentucky is at an all-time high as of today, and in that environment, it is not recommended that we implement our plans no matter how good the plans are.”

On Aug. 10, Beshear asked schools to offer non-traditional instruction (NTI) through online classes until Sept. 28 to slow the spread of the virus the Commonwealth, based on four major factors:

  • The rate of increase in COVID-19 cases seen over the last few weeks;
  • Concern that more school-age children are catching it;
  • Cautionary examples from other states which tried reopening and saw sudden outbreaks; and
  • Kentucky families returning from vacations in COVID-19 hot spots.

Altogether, those factors convinced Beshear it’s not appropriate to open schools to in-person instruction just yet, Brown said.

The governor’s request is a recommendation, not an order, so districts do have the option of reopening earlier, Brown said. He added that as of Aug. 13, the KDE has heard from around 10 districts which plan to reopen before that date.

Lt. Gov. Jacqueline Coleman, who also participated in the virtual Town Hall, said all of Beshear’s decisions about COVID-19 policy have been based on expert medical advice and guidance from the White House.

Before becoming lieutenant governor, Coleman said, she had spent her entire career in public education – as a mother, teacher, basketball coach and assistant principal – so she understands schools’ concerns. But Beshear’s recommendation stems from putting health and safety first, she said.

“I understand how difficult these decisions are,” she said, adding that Beshear’s recommended delay of classroom learning had “nothing to do with the capability or incapability of school systems.”

“It is where we are as a society with this virus escalating at this point,” Coleman said.

Green County is one district which has announced its intention to open Aug. 17. KDE officials won’t show up to prevent that, Brown said.

Brown and other KDE officials have already had a “very positive and non-confrontational call” with those school officials, reiterating the reasons for the recommendation and urging strict compliance with the Healthy at School flagship guidance, he said.

“There are several things that I am imploring you to do if you are not following the recommendation,” Brown said.

School district officials should talk to their local health department about setting up COVID-19 testing protocols, check with the school board’s legal counsel on whether reopening soon could cause problems in the district’s liability coverage, and “double down” on safety guidance as outlined in Healthy at School, he said.

There are links to a huge amount of COVID-19 information, including a searchable FAQ, on KDE’s website.

The department has released 20 guidance documents so far on many aspects of school reopening, with new ones posted on Mondays, said Kelly Foster, KDE associate commissioner in the Office of Continuous Improvement and Support.

The page also contains links to guidance from other agencies such as the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), Kentucky High School Athletic Association (KHSAA) and Kentucky Music Educators Association (KMEA), she said.

Dr. Connie White, deputy commissioner of the Kentucky Department for Public Health (DPH), said she knows school officials are concerned about the psychological impact of prolonged NTI, but those potential harms have to be balanced against the health of students, educators, and all of their families.

Though Kentucky’s death rate from COVID-19 is stable, that’s not the only factor to consider, White said. The long-term effects of the disease aren’t well understood, but some patients are showing organ damage. The death rate is flat in part because more young people are getting it, and they are more likely to survive; but they can still transmit it to older and more medically vulnerable people, she said.

Several districts have asked for COVID-19 rates broken down by county. That’s not yet possible to provide, White said. Labs must report positive tests to DPH, but they’re not required to report the total number of tests given, she said.

Labs are being asked for those numbers, but some are still faxing results in, so they’re not even all available electronically, White said.

Two recent governor’s orders will help counties that are struggling with testing, said Emily Messerli, DPH immunization branch manager. People no longer need a doctor’s order to get a COVID-19 test, and they won’t be charged for tests, she said. Soon the state will also roll out mobile testing vans for areas which don’t have easy access to current testing facilities, Messerli said.

A recording of the webcast, including answers to many submitted questions, is available on the KDE Media Portal.

Questions which were not answered due to time constraints will be addressed in upcoming webcasts or in the FAQ, Brown said.

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