Health guidance for Kentucky schools reopening in the age of the coronavirus includes having students wear masks, practice social distancing and undergo daily temperature checks. At least locally, however, masks will have their time and place.
The long-awaited plan is aimed at keeping schools open while protecting students, staff and communities, interim state Education Commissioner Kevin Brown said last Wednesday. State officials pointed to the coronavirus-related deaths of a Monroe County instructor and a Fayette County school bus driver as proof that the health guidance is essential.
“What would be irresponsible from the state is to not make recommendations that we know will help protect not just students,” Gov. Andy Beshear said. “Think about the teachers, the bus drivers and the rest. ... All the adults that are in that building or get them (students) to that building deserve to be safe, too.”
Lyon County Superintendent of Schools Russ Tilford seeks to ease the minds of students and parents about some of the mandates. In a letter sent last Thursday to all guardians of students, Tilford explained expectations for the coming school year.
“Our plan won’t be perfect,” he said, “but we will strive to be reasonable, practical and flexible as we return to school. I also want to be perfectly clear, in no way do we expect students to wear a mask all day, every day.”
Students will head back to the classroom on Aug. 11, as originally scheduled. Online registration begins today (Wednesday).
Document explains standards
As part of the 24-page Kentucky Department of Education document released last week, the state laid down standards for when students will be expected to put on masks.
“If a student is moving, they need to have a mask on,” Brown said. “If they’re less than 6 feet (apart), they need to have a mask on. When they are on a bus, they need to have a mask on.”
The state set a 6-foot social distancing requirement in classrooms but will allow exceptions, Tilford said. When students are seated closer than the minimum, mask wearing will be required, he said, but there will be times when masks can be lowered.
“We may have to do things to reduce class sizes,” the superintendent said of efforts to keep students spread out at least 6 feet so masks are not necessary during classroom learning.
“The biggest thing I see is that classrooms are going to have to be a little more bare bones. They are going to look like classrooms many of our parents went to.”
At a special board of education meeting Tuesday, the local school district was expected to approve ordering new individual desks to eliminate many that incorporate seats for two students. It is also looking to buy more cafeteria tables to keep students spread out during meals.
Tilford said meals may look a bit differently, with the elementary school gym turned into a third eating space to reduce crowding. Meal periods will also likely be extended to allow staff time to sanitize areas between eating shifts, and classroom sack lunches may be utilized on a rotation basis.
During a webcast with school superintendents last week, Brown said children shouldn’t be punished for failing to wear a mask or taking related precautions, including social distancing and hand-washing, but it should become a dress code issue, the Lexington Herald-Leader reported. Tilford reiterated that, but expects to have few problems with students following the guidelines.
Students and staff will receive temperature checks when arriving at school, Tilford said Thursday, and the school district has already purchased 46 touchless thermometers. Schools will be asked to place tape markings in hallways to keep students 6 feet apart. Schools also will be expected to stagger arrival times and reduce class sizes and congestion in common areas.
Tilford said hand sanitizer will be available and used frequently, and a plan for contact tracing will be in place. Non-essential visitors will not be allowed in any of the schools.
“We recognize that school will look different in August than it did when we left in March,” Tilford said. “However, what hurdles we have to clear, we want to have our student and staff back together at school.”
NTI still an option
The superintendent believes face-to-face interaction between students and teachers is best for education, but he is aware many families will want to pursue virtual non-traditional instruction (NTI) like was used the last two months of the 2019-20 school year.
“We have heard a lot of positive feed back about that,” he said, “so I know we’ll have some of that (used when school returns.)
Lt. Gov. Jacqueline Coleman, a former teacher and school administrator, acknowledged that reopening schools amid the pandemic will be a “very heavy lift” for every school. She stressed that school districts will be allowed flexibility to support them in implementing the standards.
“It is not fair to just put new expectations on hundreds and thousands of children that come to the same school building every day without also allowing for our schools to be able to innovate and to be able to change the way they do things in the name of health and safety,” Coleman said.
Coleman also said distance learning is an option if parents don’t want to follow mask and social distancing policies in school.
“They can stay home and the instruction can be delivered digitally if that’s what the district decides to do,” she said.
There will be a temporary suspension of the limit on NTI days for the coming school year. That will give school districts more flexibility in case they have to close in-person classes due to spikes in COVID-19 cases, she said.
Tilford said the local school system will continue to formulate its plan in the weeks prior to opening day.
The Herald Ledger and The Associated Press contributed to this story.