Kentucky parents prioritize mental health, prefer local decision in reopening schools to in-person instruction

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Graphic reading: Commissioner's Parents Advisory Council Virtual Meeting: Dec. 9, 2020

  • The differing opinions of PAC members highlight the difficult decision that Gov. Andy Beshear has to make, said Education Commissioner Jason E. Glass.
  • Jennifer Larkins, a program consultant in KDE’s Office of Assessment and Accountability, reviewed KDE’s recommended changes to the state’s accountability system with the PAC during the virtual meeting.

By Jacob Perkins
Jacob.perkins@education.ky.gov

Jason E. Glass, Kentucky’s commissioner of education, continued soliciting feedback from the education community on a potential January return to in-person instruction during the Dec. 9 virtual meeting of the Kentucky Department of Education’s (KDE’s) Parents Advisory Council (PAC).

Glass told the council that Gov. Andy Beshear has asked the department to provide a recommendation on whether schools should return on Jan. 4, the date Beshear’s executive order will expire, or continue virtual learning until a later date.

The decision will be made by Beshear, not by KDE or the Kentucky Board of Education (KBE), but the feedback received will factor into the department’s recommendation, Glass said.

“Every one of our choices has a significant downside,” he said. “The choice is, what set of consequences are you willing to accept with the choice that you make?”

PAC members agreed that the mental health of Kentucky’s students needs to be considered during the decision-making process.

Lauren Mitchell, a council member representing the KASC, suggested that it be left up to individual districts to decide when to bring their students back. She said students need to be around their peers in a safe learning environment, adding that over Thanksgiving break in her home district of Woodford County, a 15-year-old committed suicide.  

“This was a child who was seemingly doing well,” she said. “This isn’t one incident either, this is just the most recent.”

Rhonda Logsdon, representing the Kentucky Special Parent Involvement Network, echoed the concerns raised by Mitchell and said she feels the repeated switch off from in-person to virtual learning is not only harmful to the mental health of students, but to their academic needs as well.

“We’re really not allowing children to adapt and get what they need,” she said.

A few of the parent members discussed their issues with virtual learning, saying their children performed much better when in the classroom. As a parent of a daughter who has struggled to adapt to non-traditional instruction, Carie Kizziar said she wants students back in the school building and feels districts should determine when in-person instruction resumes, though she is concerned with the risk that puts on teachers.

“I do think the districts should have more power to make that decision,” she said. “But I think they need to be guided in a way that is helpful and uses experts to make sure the plans are solid and going to keep as many people safe as possible.”

Kizziar recommended that KDE partner with the Kentucky Department for Behavioral Health to ensure schools can provide mental health services to their students.

Mandy Sapp, a parent representative from Bourbon County, said she feels it would be best for schools to remain in a virtual setting because there is not enough data available on the long-term effects of COVID-19.

Sapp said if districts are left to decide for themselves, parents need to be assured they will make decisions based on the recommendations of local and state health experts.

“It’s very concerning to look at reopening schools right now, especially with the incline of (positive) cases that we have,” Sapp said, adding that districts could look into providing additional mental health services for students who may be struggling with virtual learning.

Regardless of the governor’s decision, schools will need to address their students’ mental health needs as they begin their transition back to in-person instruction, said Laura Beard, a family engagement coordinator with the Prichard Committee for Academic Excellence.

“We need to have a plan for when students return, whether that be in the spring of 2021 or the fall,” she said.

The differing opinions of the PAC members highlight the difficult decision that Beshear has to make, Glass said.

Changes to Kentucky’s Accountability System

Jennifer Larkins, a program consultant in KDE’s Office of Assessment and Accountability, reviewed KDE’s recommended changes to the state’s accountability system with the PAC during the virtual meeting.

Senate Bill (SB) 158 (2020) amends KRS 158.6455 to create an accountability system that includes an annual differentiation of all public schools in the state using multiple measures that describe each district, school and student demographic group’s overall performance.

SB 158 also requires districts to be evaluated on “status” and “change” for state indicators, which include student assessment results, progress toward achieving English proficiency by English learners, quality of school climate and safety, high school graduation rates and postsecondary readiness.

While examining KDE’s recommendation that an index method with weights be used to combine performances on the multiple indicator measures, producing an overall school performance rating, council members felt more weight should be added to the quality of school climate and safety indicator at the middle and high school levels. 

As a result of KRS 158.6455, this indicator measures perception data based on student surveys asking whether they feel safe at school, if they’re being bullied at school and if they are being encouraged by their teachers. Currently, survey results are weighted equally within the overall elementary, middle and high school accountability weights.

Mitchell said middle and high school students are more aware of their school climate than students in elementary schools, and the safety of the school would directly affect how teenagers learn, more so than younger students.

“In middle and high school, you have more peer pressure, bullying, things of that nature,” Mitchell said. “I would think you would need to weight those heavier than in elementary school.”

Larkins said feedback received from the council will be shared with the KBE ahead of their regular meeting in February, where the board will have a second reading and take action on the recommended changes.

In other business, the PAC:

  • Received parent and family resources for special education and preschool students from Veronica Sullivan in KDE’s Office of Special Education and Early Learning; and
  • Walked through KDE’s Compensatory Education and Extended School Year Services guidance document with Sylvia Starkey, division director in KDE’s Office of Special Education and Early Learning.

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