FRANKFORT, Ky. — A legislative panel was briefed today on the challenges COVID-19 poses to reopening public schools across the state.
“Schools are a major part of the economy,” Oldham County Schools Superintendent Greg Schultz said while testifying before the Interim Joint Committee on Education. “We recognize that. We want to be open. We want to incorporate safe and healthy practices in regards to COVID, but to be able to do so, the requirements must be doable.”
Schultz gave a presentation on superintendents’ concerns related to the pandemic via video chat while committee members practiced social distancing by sitting at least six feet apart or also using video chat to participate in the meeting.
Schultz said policymakers needed to balance what could realistically be done with ideal public health protocols.
For example, Schultz said guidance that urged one student per seat in every other row of a school bus was unfeasible. “There is just no way most school districts will be able to get their students to school in a timely fashion or a cost-effective fashion under that guidance,” he said.
Social distancing would also be a problem in the school building. Schultz said the physical size of classrooms would make it impossible to follow social distancing guidelines in some buildings. He said this would be a particular problem at high schools because of the larger class sizes in those grades.
For second-graders and younger, Schultz said it would be challenging to enforce the mask guidance. He added that even the most benign guidance, such as frequent hand washing, would take away from instructional hours in the lower grades.
“Sometimes we just need to keep in mind the responsibility of teachers in all of this as well,” Schultz said. “Teachers are being asked to play the role of lunchroom monitor as we eat in our classrooms, health coordinator as they check on the wellness of their students, and janitors as they are asked to clean their rooms.”
He said the added duties would be compounded by the teacher shortage and the aging teacher population.
Schultz said there is also the question of what to do with students who have or live with someone with a compromised immune system. He said with teachers back in the classrooms there would be fewer instructors available to provide distance learning to those students.
That’s all in addition to concerns regarding state funding models based on attendance and liability issues around COVID-19, Schultz added.
Kelly Foster of the Kentucky Department of Education testified that the reopening guidance was already being “refined” based on the feedback.
“We have heard those (concerns) loud and clear,” she said. “We want to recognize our partnership with public health. We are meeting with them at least once a week, sometimes more than that.”
Rep. Regina Huff, R-Williamsburg, said she wholeheartedly agreed with the concerns.
“The variables within the school day … do make following the guidelines problematic,” said Huff, co-chair of the committee. “You bought up some good points. I think we do need to look at some of the points that you made and make some changes and suggestions.”
As school districts closed in-person classes earlier this year, teaching was done through take-home packets, the internet and telephone. Senate President Robert Stivers II, R-Manchester, asked what the academic performance has been of children during the non-traditional instruction.
Schultz said non-traditional instruction probably exasperated the equity issues. He said students who do not have a computer, reliable internet service and supportive family will likely fall behind.
“I think what we will see … is that achievement gaps will widen because there is just not the same level of support,” Schultz said. “We have achievement gaps when students are in front of us. That tends not to get better when they are not in front of us.”
Sen. Alice Forgy Kerr, R-Lexington, asked Schultz when his district would intervene with students who fell behind during non-traditional instruction. He said that could be as soon as June 15.
Rep. Steve Riley, R-Glasgow, spoke about the mental wellbeing of students.
“The emotional and mental health of our students has deteriorated during this time,” Riley said. “Oftentimes I talk to parents who say their children are crying because they don’t get to see their friends.”