New DPH metric designed to help Kentucky school districts decide on virtual or in-person classes

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Special Superintendents' Webcast: September 15, 2020

By Jim Gaines
jim.gaines@education.ky.gov

The Kentucky Department for Public Health (DPH) has created a four-color metric to guide school officials in deciding whether to offer in person, virtual or hybrid instruction amid the COVID-19 pandemic.

Gov. Andy Beshear and DPH Commissioner Steven J. Stack announced the new metric on Sept. 14, a day during which Kentucky recorded 54 new cases of COVID-19 among people under age 18, about one-sixth of the day’s new case total.

In previous discussions, school district officials have asked KDE and DPH officials whether Kentucky could provide a color-coded decision-making metric, similar to one used in West Virginia, Stack said.

Gov. Beshear said the metric provides school districts with the data needed for local decision-making, which they have sought.

“There is not going to be another recommendation from my office after Sept. 28 about in-person or virtual classes,” he said. On Aug. 10, Gov. Beshear asked districts to delay in-person classes until that date due to a spike in COVID-19 cases.

Stack said if the state positivity rate spikes or hospitals are nearing capacity, the state will make new recommendations. But as long as the state’s rate stands at less than 6%, the metric will give school officials wide latitude for local decision-making on instruction, he said. As of Sept. 14, the state positive test rate stood at 4.17%.

The Kentucky COVID-19 School Re-entry Metric assumes the statewide positive test rate remains below 6% and hospitals are not nearing capacity. The state positivity rate and a map of incidence by county can be found at www.kycovid19.ky.gov.

The metric will aid school districts in making decisions on whether to hold in-person or remote instruction and other activities based on their community transmission rates.

While the rate by county is regularly published by DPH, that data, along with the color-coded metric, should provide local officials with all the decision-making tools they need, Stack said.

Decisions on school instruction and activity for each coming week should be based on the color level at 8 p.m. ET each Thursday.

The color-coded system recommends specific mitigation measures based on levels of disease transmission. The four levels are:

  • Green, with fewer than one case per 100,000 county residents, means schools can hold either in-person or remote classes as long as schools are following the Healthy at School guidance. Gov. Beshear’s guidance on group gatherings and other standard precautions still must be followed. Sports may resume if Kentucky High School Athletic Association (KHSAA) guidelines are followed.
  • Yellow, with 9.9 or fewer cases per 100,000 people, also allows in-person or remote learning and sports, but with heightened mitigation steps as coordinated by local officials, school administrators and public health leaders.
  • Orange, with 24.9 or fewer cases per 100,000, means schools should take into account a variety of factors to determine if they should move to remote learning exclusively. Sports still would be allowed, but there must be strict adherence to health guidelines. Small groups of students may be allowed into schools for targeted services.
  • Red, for more than 25 cases per 100,000, means schools should move the following week to all-virtual instruction. Sports and all extracurricular activities must be suspended. Only essential staff should regularly be in school buildings, still adhering to Healthy at School guidance. Essential student support services, such as providing meals, should continue. Small groups of students can be allowed in schools for targeted services. All these measures should remain in effect until the community returns to yellow status at a future Thursday decision point.

Local authorities don’t necessarily have to look at their specific case numbers, just the applicable color, Stack said.

“Whatever color you are, you follow the instructions there,” he said.

New Emergency Regulation Issued
A new emergency administrative regulation from DPH, signed by Gov. Beshear, requires those responsible for students – parents, guardians or other caregivers – to notify their child’s schools within 24 hours if a student tests positive for COVID-19. The regulation builds on the existing statute that requires reporting of infectious disease to add the specific requirement of reporting COVID-19, Gov. Beshear said.

The rapid-reporting requirement is meant to give local school officials real-time data with which they can make decisions, Stack said.

Schools are required to notify DPH each school day of the number of students and school personnel who test positive for COVID-19.

The results that school districts report will be posted to an online dashboard, which can be filtered by county, district or specific school, Stack said.

“We have every expectation that every individual school will report this information in good faith,” he said, though noting that there will inevitably be discrepancies between those quick daily reports and the verified cases compiled in DPH’s K-12 public health report

Since assembling that weekly data from the roughly 2,000 public and private schools in Kentucky takes so long, DPH’s numbers – while more accurate – will always lag behind the local daily reports, Stack said.

Schools’ initial data reports should be filed with DPH no later than Sept. 28.

“If you’re already in school you can start reporting tomorrow, but for the rest of you, you can start on the 28th,” Stack said.

Those reports need to include the number of positive cases reported and number quarantined due to possible exposure among both students and school personnel.

Schools also should provide detailed information on any positive student cases to their local health departments to enable contact tracing.

Kentucky colleges and universities are setting up a parallel system with their own COVID-19 dashboards, which will be linked to DPH’s homepage, Stack said.

Superintendents’ Reaction
Stack repeated his Sept. 14 presentation during the weekly Special Superintendents’ Webcast on Sept. 15. Then he and other officials took questions from webcast participants.

It was the first official webcast for Dr. Jason E. Glass, on his second day as Kentucky’s new Commissioner of Education.

The DPH COVID-19 webpage has links to the reporting regulation, two documents on how to sign up for reporting and how to use the metric and an instruction video, Stack said.

The decision-making metric uses countywide incident rates of COVID-19 because cases in restaurants, bars, nursing homes and other venues can so easily be spread throughout the entire community, he said.

“This is not about just schools. This is about communities,” Stack said.

The most frequent question from superintendents was why schools will be required to report their COVID-19 cases directly to the state since local health departments already are making regular reports.

Stack said the daily reports from schools will help fulfill the requests from communities – and school officials themselves – for the most up-to-date information. The health department reports take longer to compile and get back to schools, so daily reports should be more useful for making rapid decisions on school opening or closure, he said.

The data made public on the daily report dashboard will not disclose the identity of students or school personnel, Stack said. Health departments need names and contact information, but that will be collected through private, in-person discussion between health officials and schools, he said.

One superintendent asked whether schools will be recommended, or mandated, to stop in-person classes if their county enters the red zone.

The case-reporting requirements are legal mandates, Stack said. Whether to move to remote learning is a decision for local school boards, but if a county is in the red, closure is the “strongest possible recommendation” DPH and the governor’s office can make, he said.

Asked whether schools will be ordered closed statewide if the overall positivity rate exceeds 6%, DPH Deputy Commissioner Dr. Connie White said if the rate climbs that high, state officials will evaluate whether the healthcare system can handle the increase in cases. If hospitals are nearing capacity, the metric for local decisions may be superseded by a new recommendation from the governor, she said.

Another question was whether the new metric applies to preschools. It was designed for K-12 decision-making, said White; but she would recommend its use for preschools as well.

On the subject of sports, a participant asked whether they also would have to be canceled until a county returned to yellow status on the metric, or if sports could restart when the level dropped from red to orange.

Current wording says school activities should be suspended until the case rate returns to yellow, but it would be a community decision on restarting sports in the orange zone, Stack said. While KHSAA guidelines say no games can be held when a county is in the red,  he doesn’t believe that also would prohibit all athletic practice.

State officials will monitor the metric’s use over the next few weeks and may adjust some details to increase safety and practicality as issues arise, Stack said.

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