Superintendents voice concerns about reopening schools amid pandemic

Seeking crucial advice about how to plan for the looming school year, Kentucky’s school superintendents peppered state officials Tuesday with questions about how to prevent and manage virus outbreaks in their districts.

Ultimately, however, officials with the Kentucky Department of Education and the Kentucky Department for Public Health had few concrete answers.

During a webcast that stretched past two hours, superintendents asked how high school students could be expected to social distance while changing classes, how school buses can run efficiently while only carrying a handful of students, whether districts might be granted liability from civil suits and myriad other questions.

Dr. Steven Stack, Kentucky’s public health commissioner, told superintendents who are concerned that reopening schools might be impossible under the recommendations that it is still too early to rule out reopening schools in the fall.

“I think it is premature for us to reach the conclusion (that) we can’t have school yet in the fall.” he said. “I think we need the benefit of a few more weeks just to try to get a better trendline.”

Decisions likely won’t be made until several more weeks, Stack said.

“We’ll see in early June if the states that opened up really quickly in the beginning of May if they start to have a resurgence or an outbreak,” he said. “That will help inform if, in Kentucky, we should continue on the pace we’re on.”

In their questions, asked through a Department of Education spokeswoman, several superintendents raised concerns about how feasible it would be to safely hold in-person classes while trying to contain the virus and comply with state guidelines.

The webcast featured several Kentucky Department for Public Health representatives who rattled off a laundry list of recommendations schools should think about planning for.

The social distancing guidelines alone recommend limiting and staggering children on school buses to one per row, seating students at forward-facing desks spaced 6 feet apart in a classroom, no extracurricular activities, meals in classrooms and keeping students in one group throughout the day.

Children could have their temperatures checked before boarding buses. All school staff and children age 5 and older should wear a clothing face covering throughout the school day, if feasible. Children with health problems or developmental differences would not need to wear one.

“Masking should be done whenever it is possible,” Stack said.

Stack acknowledged the difficulties schools may face, especially given how they’re funded on a per-pupil basis.

“It’s very difficult to see how that works with the way that schools are financed and also with the ways that parents rely on school five days a week, not just a couple days a week, so that they can go to work,” he said. “The challenge we all face is substantial.”

That said, “The reality is this is the single biggest public health crisis we’ve faced as a species worldwide” since the 1918 flu pandemic, he said.

Bowling Green Independent School District Superintendent Gary Fields responded to the webcast in a text message to the Daily News.

“After today’s webcast with KDE and Dr. Stack, many will say that opening schools this fall will be very difficult,” he wrote. “I agree with that outlook if we were opening next week, but right now we are 10 weeks from our scheduled August opening date. As we have seen these previous 10 weeks, the recommendations and outlook changes dramatically in that amount of time. We will be patient and deliberate in the way we move forward for the opening of school this fall that makes the most sense for BGISD and our community.”

Warren County Public Schools Superintendent Rob Clayton held a similar view.

“The current guidelines and recommendations make it difficult for us to have in-person classes, and we need additional clarity,” Clayton told the Daily News in an interview.

Clayton said he believes Gov. Andy Beshear and Kentucky’s Interim Education Commissioner Kevin Brown are doing their level best to offer timely guidance and that he expects more specific guidance will be forthcoming.

“We need to be comfortable that we can reasonably implement these guidelines,” he said.

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