As the novel coronavirus (COVID-19) continues to spread, Governor Andy Beshear recommended Monday that school districts wait to begin in-person classes until September 28.
“Yes, that’s six weeks from now," Beshear said, "but it’s also six weeks from what I hope is the peak of this virus, six weeks from the last three weeks where we have been at an all-time high week in and week out, six weeks from a time when we just had a 6% positivity rate."
Beshear said that Monday's decision was driven by four factors: Kentucky’s cases being near a peak, an increase in infection rates among children across the U.S., the experience of school districts in other states and families continuing to travel to hotspots for vacations against the advice of health officials.
According to the administration, the decision was made "in consultation with Kentucky teachers and school administrators." The governor added that while masks are working, communities don't yet have control over the virus and it would be unwise to send "tens of thousands of our kids" back into schools.
"[I]t’s not the right thing to do for these kids, it’s not the right thing to do for their faculty and it’s not the right thing to do as Governor,” he said, adding that it may be more difficult for children if schools reopened only to have to close again a short time later.
Last month, the governor asked districts planning to open in early August to wait until the third week. Locally, both Pulaski County Schools and Somerset Independent Schools changed their initial opening days to August 24, while Science Hill Independent School had already opted to delay until September 9.
Rather than delay further, local schools will start their year through distance learning online. For Pulaski County Schools, that will continue through Fall Break (October 5-9).
"The Governor's recommendation is what he thinks is best for our state," Pulaski County Schools Superintendent Pat Richardson said. "I am disappointed that we are not going to be able to start in-person classes for those parents and students that choose to do so."
Somerset Independent Supt. Kyle Lively also called Gov. Beshear's decision disappointing, adding that his district will be going virtual through September 25.
"This decision makes it extremely difficult on working parents and could potentially further widen the learning gap for students without a strong support system at home," Lively said. "…The Governor's recommendation to delay in-person classes is supported by the Commissioner of Education and the Commissioner of Public Health. Both of those entities have the authority to close schools during a health pandemic. Therefore, his recommendation in conjunction with their support basically leaves local boards and superintendents no other option but to adhere to his guidance."
Supt. Richardson continued that he felt compassion for the 80 percent of parents and students in the district that opted for in-person classes.
"I have heard from working parents and I know the hardships that these decision place on them," Richardson said. "…This is a no-win situation for everyone involved."
For Somerset, Supt. Lively said, nearly three-quarters of families had selected in-person classes when surveyed.
"Although we can't honor the wishes of 74 percent of our students/parents, we will still provide 100 percent of our students with an excellent educational experience through distance learning," Lively said, adding that breakfast and lunch distribution would continue "in a method similar to last spring."
Jimmy Dyehouse is superintendent of Science Hill, a single-facility district in northern Pulaski that goes up through the eighth grade. Dyehouse was hot when asked for a response to Beshear's latest comments, calling them "very upsetting and very unfair" to districts that aren't seeing a large increase in COVID-19 cases.
"As of (Monday) morning, Pulaski has 90 active cases. This is out of 60,000 people who live in Pulaski County," said Dyehouse. "Not at all the staggering numbers that were mentioned in our superintendent conference call."
Despite reports that Kentucky teachers are largely opposed to in-person classes, Dyehouse says that's not the case at Science Hill, where by his own survey of all 56 employees, 100% said they would feel safe coming back with the guidelines and precautions the school has in place, he noted.
"What I think the real issue is, we have a lot of spoiled, selfish teachers statewide (mostly from the large districts) who have figured out if they say they feel unsafe coming back to in-person teaching, that superintendents and KDE (Kentucky Department of Education) might be opening themselves up to lawsuits, and they're afraid to risk it," said Dyehouse.
"... The teachers and staff members that I saw this summer seemed to feel very safe at the lake, Walmart, the water park and the baseball fields. Not to mention getting on a plane and flying to the beach for vacation," he added. "I'm sure that was exactly the same statewide. But now, all of a sudden, we don't feel safe in a classroom with kids who have masks on, a teacher with a mask and face shield on, and (social distancing) six feet apart."
Dyehouse said that while "essential employees" were made to keep working through the thick of the COVID-19 situation, he can think of no more essential workers than teachers, and that it's time to "get off the couch, out of our pajamas, and get back to school so kids can get get back to normal and back to being with their friends."
He added, "If there happens to be a huge spike in positive tests, then we will adjust as needed. But let each district decide what that is. Not the governor."
As for whether Science Hill will adjust its current schedule, Dyehouse said it depends on whether or not Beshear leaves "some flexibility" for districts. If so, Dyehouse said, Science Hill will go in-person on September 9 as planned. If not, the school will likely go online until Fall Break.
But Dyehouse expressed concern about parents who work and have no one to leave their children with during school hours, observing that some parents may have to quit jobs to do a teacher's job the longer school goes without in-person classes.
"It makes no sense to me at all," said Dyehouse. "Kids & families are the ones who will suffer the most through all this. Not schools, not the government and not KDE. It is not fair!
"I think it's time school districts and superintendents take a stand for students and families," he added. "Let's let government officials know we are tired of being told what is best for us is the same as what's best for Jefferson, Fayette, Madison, and every other district statewide. It's not a one-size-fits-all problem that we're dealing with."