Health guidance for Kentucky schools reopening in the age of the coronavirus includes having students wear masks and practice social distancing.
The long-awaited plan is aimed at keeping schools open while protecting students, staff and communities, interim state Education Commissioner Kevin Brown said 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."
As part of the 24-page document, 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, Brown said. When students are seated closer than that, mask wearing will be required, he said. There will be times when masks can be lowered.
"If you're in a classroom and you have that 6 feet social distancing around your desk, your mask can come down while you're seated," he said.
During a Tuesday webcast with school superintendents, 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.
Students and staff will receive temperature checks when arriving at school, Brown said Wednesday. 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.
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.
After the pandemic hit, Kentucky schools shut down in-person learning in March and turned to at-home learning through late May. Most school districts were awaiting direction from state officials before announcing their plans to reopen for the coming school year.
Meanwhile, Coleman announced the temporary suspension of the limit on non-traditional instruction 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.
The health guidelines were revealed as Beshear reported 229 more coronavirus cases in Kentucky, lifting the statewide total to at least 14,363 cases since the pandemic began. The state's virus-related death toll has risen to 538.
For most people, the new coronavirus causes mild or moderate symptoms, such as fever and cough that clear up within weeks. For some, especially older adults and those with existing health problems, it can cause more severe illness, even death.