Special Superintendents' Webcast: September 1, 2020

By Jim Gaines

The Kentucky Department for Public Health (DPH) has updated its guidance to say that students, teachers and staff should wear face masks at all times in school and on buses, except when actively eating or drinking, unless the person has a medical waiver.

To that end, the Kentucky Department of Education’s (KDE) flagship Healthy at School guidance document reflects the new expectation on pages 7-10 and 13. Kelly Foster, KDE associate commissioner in the Office of Continuous Improvement and Support, told superintendents of the updated guidance to help prevent the spread of COVID-19 during the Sept. 1 Special Superintendents’ Webcast.

In addition to students, masks are “expected and required” for school employees unless they have a medical condition that prevents it, Interim Commission of Education Kevin C. Brown said. In dealing with students who resist wearing masks, schools should set examples, try persuasion and other techniques before using disciplinary measures, he said.

“We think obviously that should be the last resort,” Brown said.

The updated guidance comes as weekly positive COVID-19 tests in Kentucky have tripled to quadrupled since the original Healthy at School guidance was issued in June, said Dr. Connie White, DPH deputy commissioner.

“We are just in a different universe than where we were in June when this was first posted,” she said. Case numbers are likely to rise again when in-person classes resume, she said, but if infection rates fall after that, some restrictions may be loosened. The intent of adding extra layers of protection is to help schools avoid future closures as a result of COVID-19 outbreaks, she said.

The change is an official expectation, not an optional best practice Brown said. The state now has a mandate for mask-wearing in public, and KDE officials made clear from the start that Healthy at School guidance could change depending on the situation, he said. For now, masks are the cheapest and most effective method for mitigating the spread of COVID-19, Brown said.

If infection rates don’t decrease by the time most schools resume in-person classes on Sept. 28, further mitigation measures may be necessary, he said.

White said it’s a myth that Kentucky forbids masks for children below 1st grade. Guidelines from the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention state that masks can be worn by children over age 2, and school districts can require masks for preschool and kindergarten students, Foster said. Several districts have added that requirement to the standards already in Healthy at School, she said.

Fabric masks should be at least two-ply, and neck gaiters are acceptable if they have two layers, White said. Medical-grade or N95 masks aren’t necessary for the general public, and cloth masks are far more comfortable, she said.

Students can sit closer than 6 feet apart on buses going to and from school, as long as they all remain masked and the bus is loaded from back to front, said Kay Kennedy, education consultant in KDE’s Office of Finance and Operations. Passengers from the same household may sit together.

Given limited time and supply of buses and drivers, some leeway was necessary, she said.

But for traveling to sporting events or other extracurricular activities, when students are likely to ride longer and more buses should be free, students should adhere to distancing guidelines, Kennedy said.

Sports Guidance
The Kentucky High School Athletic Association (KHSAA) Board of Control decided on Aug. 20 to allow practice for fall sports to begin on Aug. 24, and for games to start on Sept. 7, upholding a tentative decision from July. On Aug. 28, the Kentucky Board of Education (KBE) voted to send KHSAA a letter asking for “additional guidance in certain areas,” but did not ask KHSAA to change the dates for starting sports, said KDE General Counsel Todd Allen.

There has been no change in the substance of KHSAA’s guidance since its release, but future updates are likely, said KHSAA Commissioner Julian Tackett. Response to KBE and any changes will be up to the Board of Control, he said.

Asked why superintendents who support resuming sports weren’t specifically invited to speak during the KBE meeting, Brown said supporters of reopening sports were well-represented on the KHSAA Board of Control and they weren’t deliberately excluded from the KBE agenda.

School Feeding Waiver
The U.S. Department of Agriculture on Aug. 31 approved a waiver to allow the extension of school summer food programs, said Robin Kinney, associate commissioner in KDE’s Office of Finance and Operations. Kentucky, along with other states, had lobbied for more flexibility on feeding to deal with school shutdowns from COVID-19.

The new standards allow districts to continue under the National School Lunch Program for this school year if they wish, but alternatively would let them extend Summer Food Service Programs through Dec. 31, Kinney said. Details should be sent to school food service directors on Sept. 2, she said.

It is possible, but not guaranteed, that the waiver will be further extended to cover the entire 2020-2021 school year, Kinney said. If it does end on Dec. 31, districts could then return to using the regular National School Lunch Program, she said.

NTI Support
The KDE Division of Innovation has developed a webpage of support services for schools on managing in-person, virtual and blended instruction, said David Cook, KDE’s Division of Innovation director in the Office of Continuous Improvement and Support.

The Non-Traditional Instruction (NTI) Support Services page includes a request form for districts to ask for any help they need on NTI, he said.

English Learner Screening
Federal legal obligations for serving English learners and their families are still in force, including the WIDA screening for English learner programs, said Jessica Sanderson, KDE Title III program consultant. The WIDA screening can’t be done virtually, so a new guidance document on English learner programs was released on Aug. 31.

Students can be placed in those programs temporarily until an in-person screening can be done, Sanderson said. But the U.S. Department of Education (USED) does not allow screening extension or waivers: the limit still is 30 calendar days if a student enrolls in an English learner program at the beginning of the school year, or 14 calendar days if they enroll later, she said.

For meetings with parents, districts can schedule face-to-face meetings that follow all COVID-19 precautions, or hold those meetings online, Sanderson said. Standards will be updated as more information comes from USED, she said.

Questions can be sent to Sanderson or Erin Sudduth, or answered by phone at (502) 564-3791.