Wednesday's announcement that K-12 schools must suspend in-person instruction for the rest of the calendar year has sparked a number of reactions in local school officials.
Governor Andy Beshear issued the order as part of a larger slate of restrictions aimed at slowing the third wave of COVID-19 cases. Students are to resume distance learning beginning next Monday, November 23. Middle and high schools must remain in remote instruction until January 4. Elementary schools may reopen as early as December 7 if their county is not in the red zone and they comply with all Healthy at School guidance.
Pulaski County has been in the red zone — considered a critical rate of spread with at least 25 new cases per day per 100,000 individuals — for more than a week. Though it hadn't been mandated before, the state had recommended that schools within the red zone suspend in-person instruction until the county returned to the orange zone (10-25 new cases daily) or lower category.
While all three local districts initially attempted to keep schools open for the students whose families had opted for in-person instruction, Pulaski County Schools did announce Monday that their system would close November 23-24 — even to virtual instruction — as a way to extend the Thanksgiving holiday in hopes that the nine-day break would curb the spike.
On Thursday, Pulaski Superintendent Patrick Richardson sounded somewhat relieved by the governor's decision after being caught between opposing sides.
"I am glad the Governor finally made a decision," Richardson said. "As superintendent of one of the largest school districts in the Lake Cumberland region — with 9,000 students and 1,400 employees — along with superintendents across the state, we were criticized earlier for not sending students to in-person instruction. This week our local Lake Cumberland District Health Department criticized all three local school districts for being in-person and making local decisions.
"These decisions are, and continue to be, extremely difficult," Supt. Richardson continued. "I try to consider our students, parents and staff in every decision we make."
Although the school district has taken advantage of the attendance flexibility the state has allowed local districts to address the pandemic — in one instance, taking one elementary's kindergarten classes all virtual when three of the four teachers tested positive for COVID-19 — Pulaski County Schools will not attempt to split the reopening of its primary and secondary campuses.
"We will bring everyone back on January 4," Supt. Richardson said.
In contrast to the sprawling Pulaski district, Science Hill Independent is composed of a single school —which doesn't even offer high school classes. Supt. Jimmy Dyehouse told the Commonwealth Journal that he didn't feel the governor's decision is in the best interest of Science Hill families.
"He has a problem taking into consideration a small school that had zero cases in 10 weeks and is doing things the right way to keep students and staff safe," Dyehouse said of Beshear. "It would be nice to see some common sense used when making decisions that affect so many kids and parents' lives. Once again this is not a one-size-fits-all solution. Making a blanket mandate just to follow suit with other states is putting my families and students in tremendous hardship."
Supt. Dyehouse added that whether to teach in person or virtually "should always be a district decision based solely on positive cases in our individual schools." However, there was no question that Science Hill would switch to educating all students virtually starting next Monday. The school currently plans on bringing elementary students back for in-person instruction on December 7.
"I was hoping since we are Pre-school through [Grade] 8 in one building, we would be allowed to open back up in person for all grades," Supt. Dyehouse said, "but they've informed me that I must treat middle school as if they're in a separate building."
He doesn't feel keeping the middle school students on distance learning until January 4 if the elementary can reopen sooner will create a particular hardship for school staff.
"It won't be a problem because middle school learns virtually with Chromebooks," Supt. Dyehouse said. "Middle school teachers will be available for their students on Zoom and by phone for questions and clearing up misconceptions."
Somerset Independent's Superintendent Kyle Lively said his district was transitioning all students preschool through high school to 100 percent distance learning from November 23 through January 4.
"However, if Pulaski County moves below a red level according to the incidence map, grades preschool through fourth will resume in-person classes on December 7," Lively said.
Lively was more reserved with his statements than the other two superintendents, but still indicated he would prefer to have students attending class in person.
"The Somerset Independent School District hopes to resume offering safe and essential in-person classes to all grade levels as soon as the Governor’s executive order is lifted. Our goal is to provide Somerset students with the best educational experience possible. Having students attend in-person class is truly the best way to serve their social, emotional, and educational needs," he said.
Somerset staff reminded parents that should their children be having problems with at-home lessons, the first person they should contact is their child's assigned teacher through email.
Breakfast and lunch meals will distributed on December 1, with meal kits to cover food for students for the week of November 30 through December 4. Parents can pick up meals at one of several locations between noon and 2 p.m. on that Tuesday. High school and middle school students can also pick up meals for each week they are out on December 8 and December 15 at their respective schools.
In addition to the public school systems, the mandate also covers private schools — the largest of which locally is Somerset Christian School. Principal John Hale said Thursday that he was disappointed by Gov. Beshear's approach to rising COVID-19 cases across the commonwealth.
"There are clusters that could be addressed without impacting everyone," Hale said. "Jefferson County, Fayette County, and Warren County seem to be the 'hot spots.' SCS has only had three students test positive since the pandemic began in January and two of those are connected so we really have only had two 'incidents.'
"We have quarantined a few students out of an abundance of caution," the principal continued. "We are taking extraordinary measures and we are spending to our budgetary limits to provide a safe and healthy school environment. I see no reason for a prolonged closure for our school. The daily report from LCDHD lists new cases by county and by age. Pulaski County has had a spike in cases but only a few are school age."