Kentucky Lawmakers Discuss How To Keep Schools Open During COVID Surge

Sep 2, 2021 at 1:49 pm
school masks

The Covid-19 surge has created a difficult path forward for in-person learning at Kentucky schools, something state lawmakers addressed on Wednesday afternoon.

Ahead of a likely special legislative session due to the escalating pandemic, the Interim Joint Committee on Education met to search for solutions. 

The sweeping, two-hour conversation focused on keeping kids in classrooms, school funding and staffing shortages, with the majority of the time spent questioning school leaders about things like nontraditional instruction days, district-by-district flexibility and even a “test-and-stay” program used at Green County Schools.

The situation has grown dire, as more than 20 school districts have needed temporary shutdowns, but Jim Flynn, executive director of the Kentucky Association of School Superintendents, spoke about being committed to keeping school doors open. 

“Our superintendents are working hard to keep educational services in place for our students, with an emphasis and a priority to in-person educational services, and to do so in a way that protects everyone’s safety and well-being in that process and that also reduces the spread, to help minimize the impact on our local healthcare systems,” Flynn said at the meeting. “But, a key to galvanizing our local support in our communities is good, clear information. And, especially, we need good data and evidence at the local, regional and state levels that can guide superintendents and their board and communities in complex decisions and actions that must be made during this challenging time.”

Republican Sen. Max Wise, chair of the Senate Education Committee, emphasized several times his goal was to keep students in classrooms, in a safe manner, but, two representatives from Jefferson County stressed that, if the discussion is going to revolve around district flexibility, that options for expanding or enhancing virtual learning methods should be considered, because state law currently limits districts to 10 NTI days per school year.

Sen. Gerald Neal, a Democrat from Louisville, said that the discussions on flexibility is a “no-brainer” but that, “When we talk about flexibility, shouldn’t we also consider the expansion of NTI days, in some form?”

Wise responded that he thought a model of unlimited (a word Neal never used) NTI was dangerous, but that he supported discussing it.

“I will tell you personally that, from talking to my superintendents, there is not any type of appetite for unlimited NTI,” Wise said. “Now, in terms of flexibility and common sense, could we maybe have a discussion on what would be fair for districts? I think we could.”

Rep. Lisa Willner, a Democrat from Louisville, spoke giving “a lot of authority to the local districts to make decisions on the fly, which we’re not able to do when we’re not in session.” She also spoke about the hybrid learning model, which allows teachers to see some kids in person and some remotely, which Jefferson County implemented last year.

Senate President Robert Stivers discussed the massive difference between individual schools, even inside the same district, to which Flynn responded: “I think one thing that we learned is that the one-size-fits-all solution is usually not going to be the best path forward.”

Will Hodges, the superintendent at Green County Schools, talked about a “test-to-stay” program that’s being used in his district, where students and teachers who have been exposed to COVID at a school level don’t have to quarantine if they test negative. He said the program, which is optional, has seen 92% of students enrolled in it remain negative and able to stay in class. He also said the district has used no NTI days. Exposed students test every day for a week, 24-hours apart. The program runs through Cumberland Family Medical. 

“This is not easy, but I think all of us would say that none of this is easy,” Hodges said. “Everyday we get up, everyone who goes out, we’re living in a tough environment right now. But, I’ll say this, it’s worthwhile. And why it’s worthwhile, is that we’re finding a way to keep children in classrooms.”

There was quite a bit of interest from lawmakers about test-to-stay at the meeting, but there were questions of the possibility of being able to scale the program to larger districts — Green County has 1,675 students, while Jefferson County has 101,000.

While the majority of the conversations at the meeting revolved around flexibility and ideas of ways to keep kids in classrooms, there was also talk of staffing shortages and how the pandemic and attendance metrics will affect future school budgets.

Flynn spoke about staffing shortages, especially teachers and bus drivers, saying that a challenge for the latter was difficulty getting people tested for CDL licenses quickly enough. Eric Kennedy, director of advocacy at the Kentucky School Boards Association, said that, even though some restrictions are on the federal level, the state should look carefully at ways to relax the rules surrounding retired teachers returning to the classroom.

“We need any of our retired teachers that are able and willing to sub, in any place, in any district, to do that, so I think more discussion definitely needs to be happening.”

When it comes to funding, Flynn emphasized that lawmakers should not only addressing the present, but also look toward the future.

“We need to address the funding stabilization end of the equation,” Flynn said. “I think that’s kind of job one. If in-person learning is the priority and our districts are working really hard to keep the doors open, even on days where attendance rates are really low, it’s important to understand the impact that has on next year’s budget. Because the average daily attendance rate influencing how funding will roll into districts not just ’21-22, but also to the ’22-23 year, we need some help stabilizing that funding, so that regardless of the attendance rate, our districts can continue to provide in-services learning to the students.”

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