By Jim Gaines
Members of the Local School Board Members Advisory Council discussed revisions to the flagship Healthy at School guidance document during its Sept. 3 virtual meeting.
The guidance was released in June, but was updated at the end of August based on advice from the Kentucky Department for Public Health (DPH) to include the expectation that students and teachers will wear cloth face masks at all times while in school except when eating or drinking, said Kelly Foster, associate commissioner in the Kentucky Department of Education’s (KDE) Office of Continuous Improvement and Support.
The top question districts have had on the new guidance is whether masks still are required when students are outside, such as at recess, Foster said. The Kentucky Department for Public Health says masks can be removed when outside if students remain 6 feet apart.
The second-most common question is whether preschool and kindergarten students can wear masks, Foster said. The U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) says masks can be worn by anyone over age 2. Local school districts can require preschool and kindergarten students to wear masks, Foster said.
Dr. Connie White, DPH deputy commissioner, said COVID-19 cases in Kentucky roughly tripled after July 4, but leveled off when Gov. Andy Beshear mandated masks in public, further reduced restaurant capacity and closed bars again. Cases have not decreased, however, so stricter mitigation efforts are needed than those outlined in the original Healthy at School document, she said.
Answering a question from council member Ambrose Wilson of Woodford County, White said that even if one county has a low rate of positive COVID-19 tests, school district employees may live in adjacent counties with higher rates.
Decisions on reopening schools for in-person instruction are complicated by inter-county traffic and the degree of public compliance with health guidelines, she said.
New Guidance for English Learners and Small Groups, NTI Support
New guidance is available on English learner programs, said Jessica Sanderson, KDE Title III program consultant. Federal legal obligations for serving English learners and their families are still in force during the pandemic, including WIDA screening, she said.
That screening cannot be done virtually, so schools can place students in English learner programs temporarily until in-person screening can be done, Sanderson said.
Under revised guidance on orientation and targeted services, schools can now allow up to 14 students plus one teacher to gather in school buildings as a single group for certain purposes, Foster said.
If multiple groups are in a building at the same time, they cannot occupy more than 15% of the building’s usual student capacity and can only be there for 2 hours at a time, she said.
All standard COVID-19 health precautions and cleaning guidelines still must be followed, Foster said.
Gov. Andy Beshear has asked school districts not to reopen for in-person instruction until Sept. 28 because of the number of COVID-19 cases in Kentucky.
David Cook, division director in KDE’s Office of Continuous Improvement and Support, said the Division of Innovation heard many concerns about the need to improve non-traditional instruction (NTI) for the fall and has put together a webpage to provide NTI support services. It includes a request form for teachers, schools and districts to ask for any help they need on NTI, he said.
Foster asked council members whether their district had opened yet for in-person instruction and, if so, what their experience had been.
Charlie Wise of Hardin County said schools there restarted Aug. 24 with a mix of in-person and remote learning. More students are using NTI than attending classes in person, he said.
The biggest challenges have been transporting students with reduced bus capacity and taking temperatures before allowing entry to school buildings, Wise said.
The district has four active COVID-19 cases in different schools, and six cases among NTI students, but hasn’t had to close, he said. The district hired Cumberland Health Group to do rapid testing and overall, officials are happy with the decision they made, Wise said.
“We’ve spent the bucks to make it right,” he said.
Sports Question for Glass
Jason Glass, who officially becomes commissioner of education on Sept. 14, joined the webcast and took questions from council members.
Linda Duncan of Jefferson County said schools there are trying to phase in sports but saw COVID-19 cases appear even before practice began. She asked Glass’ opinion on what level of cases is “too much” and would require stopping practice or games.
Glass said he wished there was a clear metric for decision, but that it depends on the sport’s requirements, the rate of infection, local mitigation plans and compliance.
Districts should watch all of those factors carefully in making that decision, and clearly state and enforce mitigation steps, he said. The Kentucky Board of Education recently asked the Kentucky High School Athletic Association to provide additional guidance on this issue.
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