Members of the Commissioner’s Student Advisory Council discuss issues during their Sept. 15 virtual meeting. Dr. Jason E. Glass, lower left corner, attended his first council meeting as Kentucky's new commissioner of education.

Members of the Commissioner’s Student Advisory Council discuss issues during their Sept. 15 virtual meeting. Dr. Jason E. Glass, lower left corner, attended his first council meeting as Kentucky’s new commissioner of education.

By Jacob Perkins

Members of the Commissioner’s Student Advisory Council were joined by Kentucky’s new Commissioner of Education Jason Glass and Lt. Gov. Jacqueline Coleman during their Sept. 15 virtual meeting.

The students discussed non-traditional instruction (NTI), mental health and educational challenges their schools or districts may be facing during the COVID-19 pandemic.

While some students on the council have returned to in-person instruction, others still are in a fully virtual learning environment or a hybrid model, which utilizes both in-person and online learning.

Jack Johnson, a sophomore from Marshall County High School, joined the meeting from his school, which has returned to in-person instruction. Johnson said Marshall County has seen a total of three positive student COVID-19 cases districtwide so far.

The latest report from the Kentucky Department for Public Health verifies this number and reports that four members of district staff also have tested positive for the virus.

Although there have been positive cases, Johnson said the students in the district are excited to be back in school, something he feels is not typical when returning from a summer break.

“All of a sudden, school is an outlet – a place where we can all unify,” he said. “That’s very important because we’ve been apart for so long and this has really given us a sense of togetherness. …

“Kids are willing to put up with wearing that mask and doing certain things that are different to get that sense of normalcy that school provides us.”

Peyton Hall, a senior from Fleming County High School who also has returned to in-person instruction, agreed with Johnson that returning has been an adjustment. He added that he has seen how selfless his school truly is during this time.

“Students just want to be here in this building,” he said. “No one complains about wearing their masks and everyone wears it properly. Everyone is OK with staying 6 feet apart; we just want to be in the presence of other students and be in the learning environment that we learn the best in.”

Hall said his school has gone into what they call a “box schedule,” which means he has the same classes on Monday and Wednesday and the same on Tuesday and Thursday. These classes are now two hours long, he said, which provides a break for students to go outside and distance themselves so they can remove their masks.

This schedule also provides time for students to complete homework at school since they are not asked to do work at home. Hall said Fleming County students are not using backpacks this year as a way to limit the number of items being transported from the school building to the student’s home.

Soleila Elliott Gonzalez, a junior at Ballard High School (Jefferson County), who is still learning fully online, said that, for the most part, her experience with NTI has been fairly smooth.

Recently, she did experience a hiccup with her home Wi-Fi and had to go to her mother’s work to finish her assignments. Gonzalez said that coming from a low-income area, this was an eye-opening experience for her.

“I realize how important and how impactful that could be on a student’s ability to actually feel present and feel involved and just be able to learn overall,” she said.

Gonzalez’s fellow student advisory council members told her that, unfortunately, internet and connectivity issues are not a problem unique to Jefferson County.

“Some of the same concerns that I’m hearing from Jefferson County are the same concerns on my end of the state,” said Wallace Caleb Bates, a senior from Breathitt County High School, who will return to in-person instruction on Sept. 28.

Bates, two other members of the council and Glass were guests on the Sept. 14 edition of Kentucky Tonight hosted by Renee Shaw, and he recalled having internet issues before the interview for the program.

“Before the interview, my Wi-Fi went out and I was scared and I thought, ‘What am I going to do tomorrow if this isn’t fixed,’” said Bates. “Luckily, things worked out and I was able to get that taken care of.”

After hearing of these issues with technology, Coleman asked the students if there was anything they would like to remain a fixture of education in Kentucky based on their experience with NTI.  

The students said that, throughout the pandemic, they have been impressed with their schools emphasizing mental health and student voice. They mentioned they also liked having work assigned ahead of time so they know what to expect.

Miles McGinnis, a senior from South Oldham High School (Oldham County), said districts are now more prepared for days when schools are closed due to illness or inclement weather because of the experiences gained through NTI.

“Take snow days for example, we don’t have to worry about having to cancel school again because we can use this as an opportunity to continue school,” he said. “There are plenty of other examples out there. We might be out of school for this reason or that reason. This just shows us what we can do when we have technology in our toolbox.”

Rohin Dutt, a junior from duPont Manual High School (Jefferson County), added that although everyone has been physically distanced during this time, he hopes that sense of unity will remain when Kentucky moves into a post-COVID-19 world.

“We’re all in this together,” he said. “People have been more kind and compassionate to one another and I hope that’s something we can carry back in once we return in person.”

Mental Health
Damien Sweeney, program coordinator for comprehensive school counseling with the Kentucky Department of Education (KDE), met with the students to discuss any mental health issues they are seeing in their schools.

Johnson expressed concerns about the mental health of students in more rural areas of the state.

“In these rural areas I feel as if mental health is more of an issue, but yet less addressed due to the distance and isolation so many experience,” he said.

Johnson asked Sweeney what could be done to provide help to those who need it.

“The big thing we continue to tell our counselors to do is to continue to check in with students,” Sweeney said. “They should be checking in with students individually and families.”

If counselors are having issues getting in touch with students consistently, they should perform well checks – where local police check on a student or family to ensure their safety.

“One thing I’ve been extremely concerned about, even before COVID hit, is that so many of those school counselors weren’t able to get into classrooms because they were tasked with so many different things that had very little to do with mental health,” said Sweeney.

Sweeney said he hopes to see school counselors provide lessons to students so they can help normalize mental health disorders like depression and anxiety.

“What we know is that any students experience those things and they think they’re on an island and they’re absolutely alone,” he said.

Healthy at Sports
Many of the student members actively participate in sports, and Kentucky High School Athletic Association (KHSAA) Commissioner Julian Tackett joined to discuss with them the return of sports.

Tackett said the cancellation of spring sports due to COVID-19 was the hardest thing he’s ever had to do, so the KHSAA redoubled its efforts to ensure that didn’t happen again.

“We started back official play last week,” he said. “A lot of people will get better at hosting events, but I knew at some point, we absolutely needed to get the students back engaged in sports.”

Johnson agreed, pointing out that not only do athletics bring a community together, but a lot of students also use athletics as an outlet and a way to stay on a straight path.

“It keeps certain kids out of trouble,” he said. “I feel like that is often overlooked. It gives you somewhere to be instead of at the party or doing something that you shouldn’t be doing.”

Logan Justice, a junior at Paul Laurence Dunbar High School (Fayette County), asked Tackett who would accept liability if a student athlete were to contract COVID-19.

According to Tackett, parents already sign a statutorily required permission form before the season acknowledging the risk of playing sports. Some districts have added more layers to this form in the wake of the virus, he said.

“Because this virus transmits so easily and spreads among communities, it may be difficult to pinpoint whether the virus was transmitted to an athlete in a conditioning setting, in a weight room, whether it was on the field, whether it was in a classroom or whether it was in a school-related or extracurricular- related setting at all,” said Todd Allen, KDE’s general counsel.

Both Tackett and Allen called on the students to help enforce both Healthy at School and Healthy at Sports guidance in their communities.

“Peer pressure can be powerful and we can use it in a positive manner to get everybody wearing masks, social distancing and sanitizing so that we can keep schools open, so that we can keep sports going and so that we can try to get to some level of normalcy as we live through the COVID-19 situation,” said Allen.

While the Sept. 15 meeting wasn’t the first time the student advisory council was introduced to Glass, this was the first meeting in his official role as commissioner of education. Glass said having students involved in the decision-making process is vital for education in the Commonwealth and looks forward to their continued involvement.

“Having you advise me as commissioner and the department of education will make us a better agency and me a better commissioner,” he said. “Hearing your perspective really does shift the decisions we make. …

“I’ve enjoyed the conversation and learned a lot from you and I look forward to continuing to learn with you, and from you, as we work together going forward.”

The Commissioner’s Student Advisory Council will meet again on Oct. 27.