Graphic reading: Superintendents Webcast, August 12, 2021

By Jacob Perkins

During the Aug. 12 Superintendents Webcast, Kentucky Department of Education (KDE) leadership fielded questions regarding an emergency regulation passed by the Kentucky Board of Education (KBE) requiring universal masking in public schools.

The webcast came after special KBE and Local Superintendents’ Advisory Council (LSAC) meetings to discuss the emergency regulation, which the KBE voted unanimously to approve.

Per state law in Kentucky, emergency regulations are for 270 days, but the KBE indicated they would call a special meeting to consider withdrawing or amending the regulation based upon the changes in guidance from state and national public health officials.

“I know the (270-day requirement) alarms people, but I want to assure you it is not my intent, or the state board of education’s intent to keep kids in masks for the next nine months,” said Commissioner of Education Jason E. Glass. “We all hope that doesn’t end up being the case.”

KDE is working on non-regulatory guidance to accompany the emergency regulation, Glass said. This guidance will include additional information on addressing populations exempt from the regulation, including students with disabilities.

“For a very, very small group of students this could be challenging, particularly for students who may have sensory disabilities or other disabilities that make mask wearing difficult,” said Gretta Hylton, associate commissioner of KDE’s Office of Special Education and Early Learning.

For students who cannot wear a mask because of their disability, Hylton said the Admissions and Release Committee should determine additional accommodations for the student, or additional mitigation measures within the school, to ensure their safety.

Asked how to address students and staff who refuse to follow the mask requirements, Glass recommended districts look to how they handled that last school year. Schools and districts should have a code of conduct and discipline procedures already established for both students and staff that they can rely on to gain compliance.

“We presume that most students and staff members will largely comply with this because that’s what we experienced last year,” he said.

Glass encouraged superintendents to review the KBE’s emergency regulation and Gov. Andy Beshear’s Aug. 10 executive order because they are similar, but not identical.

“There are some differences,” Glass said. “We also know the governor’s executive order is going to expire 30 days from its issuance, and that is not the case with the Kentucky Board of Education’s emergency regulation.”

The KBE emergency regulation also clarifies that when students are not in the school facility, teachers who are in rooms by themselves do not have to wear a mask.

With the rise of COVID-19 positive cases in Kentucky, superintendents asked about the possibility of additional non-traditional instruction (NTI) days being granted to school districts. For the 2021-2022 school year, districts returned to the usual statutory limitations of no more than 10 NTI days.

Glass doesn’t foresee a change in that number.

“In reflecting on our experience from last year, if we put in place quality and consistent COVID mitigation strategies, it is possible to keep in-person learning going through this period that we hope will be very short,” he said.

Public Health Updates, Testing Program
Kentucky Department for Public Health (DPH) Commissioner Dr. Steven Stack briefed the superintendents on the current situation surrounding COVID-19 in the Commonwealth.

“The rate of COVID-19 disease in Kentucky has skyrocketed since early July,” he explained, attributing the rapid spread to the virus’ delta variant.

According to Stack, widespread vaccination would have dramatically slowed the spread of the virus. However, only 54% of Kentuckians have had a single dose of the vaccine, and less than 47% are fully vaccinated. Hospitals throughout the state have canceled non-urgent surgeries and hospitalizations to free bed space because of the rapid influx of COVID-19 patients, Stack said.

“Many hospitals have empty beds, but no nurses to staff them because many nurses left their clinical jobs last year due to the distress of the experience,” he added. “The remaining staff is exhausted, mentally distressed and often angry at a society that refuses to follow public health and medical expert advice.”

While masking is only one of many mitigation strategies, local, state and national health experts back their use, Stack said, noting that another mitigation tool districts should implement is continued testing.

DPH is offering the K-12 COVID-19 Testing Program in partnership with the CDC. The program is voluntary and at no cost for Kentucky’s schools to help reopen safely for in-person instruction.

Testing is limited to staff and students of Kentucky K-12 public and private schools and includes school district employees and staff, such as bus drivers, maintenance, office staff or as determined by the school administrator.

The program began Aug. 2 and will operate the entire 2021-2022 academic year. Superintendents and school administrators can learn more about the program on the state’s K-12 School COVID Testing Program webpage.

High School Athletics Updates
The Kentucky High School Athletic Association (KHSAA) has partnered with DPH to promote vaccinations at the local level to combat potential cancellations of fall sports, KHSAA Commissioner Julian Tackett reported during the Superintendents’ Webcast.

Last fall, athletes lost a quarter of their seasons due to COVID-19 disruptions, Tackett said. Since vaccinated individuals currently are not required to quarantine if they have close contact with someone who tests positive for COVID-19, the KHSAA hopes more Kentuckians will elect to receive the vaccine to provide a season that will be free of cancellations.

The KHSAA plans to send updated information out on Aug. 13 regarding masking at indoor events.

“We certainly encourage everybody to comply with the existing orders and we’ll address issues such as we need to further down the road,” Tackett said.

Quarantine Leave
Superintendents heard from Robin Kinney, associate commissioner in KDE’s Office of Finance and Operations, about an emergency regulation related to paid leave for district employees who are quarantined due to COVID-19 or any variant of the virus.

Approved by the KBE on Aug. 5, the regulation provides paid leave for full- and part-time school district staff ordered to quarantine by a treating medical professional, a local health department, DPH or the employing school district.

Employees must have taken the COVID-19 vaccine or be exempt because of disability or sincerely held religious belief to be eligible for this paid leave. The additional leave prevents eligible employees from having to use their limited personal or sick leave days during quarantine.

The KBE also approved a non-emergency regulation surrounding district employee leave that will take effect in 7 to 9 months, allowing paid leave for similar quarantining circumstances.

“In the future, while we certainly hope we’re not dealing with COVID, there may be other infectious or contagious disease that we’ll ask districts to adopt a policy around,” said Kinney.

Kinney also discussed an amendment to existing regulation 702 KAR 7:125 with the district leaders. The amendment allows a district to provide educational services to students while they are quarantined or isolated and allows school districts to include those students in the Adjusted Average Daily Attendance (AADA) during the 2021-2022 school year.

Communications Updates
KDE is working alongside DPH, the state’s education cooperatives and other agencies to provide a one-time distribution of hand sanitizer to public schools, said Toni Konz Tatman, the department’s chief communications officer.

Districts may submit a request for hand sanitizer by Aug. 13, and requests will be filled based on inventory. The hand sanitizer is available in office or classroom size, as well as larger bulk containers for common areas.

KDE also recently announced the semifinalists for the 2022 Kentucky Teacher of the Year. The 10 semifinalists are among 24 educators in Kentucky who were named 2022 Valvoline™ Teacher Achievement Award winners. They were chosen based on their scores from the first round of judging, which was conducted by a blue-ribbon panel of veteran educators. Applications included nominees’ teaching philosophies, teaching experiences, involvement in their respective communities and letters of recommendation.

A virtual presentation and interview with each of the 10 semifinalists will result in the selection of the 2022 Elementary School, Middle School and High School Teachers of the Year. The finalist with the highest cumulative score will be named the 2022 Kentucky Teacher of the Year and will represent Kentucky in the 2022 National Teacher of the Year competition.

Registration is now open for the 2021 Kentucky Education Summit, which is scheduled for Nov. 1-2 at the Kentucky International Convention Center in Louisville.

The statewide summit will focus on the future of K-12 education in the Commonwealth. Over two days, the event will pull in some of the nation’s top education reform leaders to help begin a discussion about how to build a stronger education system with high standards in Kentucky.

Individuals interested in attending the 2021 Kentucky Education Summit may complete the registration form through Oct. 29. Registration is free and open to everyone.