After Gov. Andy Beshear urged schools to hold off on reopening until Sept. 28 at the earliest – and the state’s interim education commissioner suggested the governor could take executive action if they do not comply – Beshear said Wednesday he would not order schools to close, barring serious threats to public health.
Asked during his afternoon COVID-19 briefing – during which he also announced a new single-day record of 1,163 positive cases – Beshear said it would take “a severe, proven threat to the health of the people in the school” and a failure by the district to do anything about it.
“I’m not shutting any school system down that doesn’t agree with it,” Beshear said, referring to a recommendation he made Monday that schools should start the year virtually and delay reopening with coronavirus peaking in Kentucky.
If a district does reopen its schools – a move Beshear strongly discouraged Wednesday – Beshear said they should follow best practices and have a robust testing plan in place. Schools that start with a widespread outbreak, those that try to mask outbreaks or those that don’t work with contact tracers would likely be the target of an order to close, Beshear said.
“COVID-19 is hot as a firecracker in Kentucky,” Beshear said Wednesday. “The idea that we would take this step at a time when we are at our peak is simply not a smart move to make. … Even the very best plans aren’t going to work if the virus is at such a level,” that it overwhelms schools, Beshear said.
“All we are asking for is one month,” Beshear said.
Both local public school systems are privately weighing their options in the wake of Beshear’s guidance Monday.
A spokeswoman for the Kentucky Department of Education confirmed to the Daily News that Interim Education Commissioner Kevin Brown spoke with both local superintendents Wednesday.
On Tuesday, during a call with superintendents, Brown outlined the potential steps the department would take if districts opt to reopen before Sept. 28, beginning with a conference call involving the district’s school board members and attorney.
“We want to know why you decided to go against the recommendation of public health, the governor and the department to go ahead and have school,” Brown told superintendents during a webcast Tuesday. “My goal would be to have a different outcome at the end of the conversation.”
Failing that, Brown said other actions could be taken.
“The governor of course does have executive order authority,” Brown said, adding other state agencies could also step in. “We all know that local health departments, and I believe also the commissioner of public health, have very broad authority to close public buildings, including school buildings and a group of buildings, being a district, during a public health emergency if the public health requires it,” he said Tuesday.
Kentucky’s board of education could also take action granted to it by emergency regulations, Brown said.
In a Facebook post Wednesday, Warren County Public Schools Board of Education member Amy Duvall lamented Beshear’s guidance, calling it “no recommendation.”
“Local school control and parental choice are being taken away. The threats have escalated. The governor should publicly explain how far he will go. The people need to hear this,” Duvall wrote in the post.
Warren County ‘in the red’ with COVID-19 cases
On Wednesday, Beshear reported a new single-day record of 1,163 new coronavirus cases, though the total may be somewhat influenced by a recent glitch with the state’s computer system for reporting daily increase in positives.
In Warren County, Beshear reported 34 new cases Wednesday and called the area a huge concern and a virus hotspot.
“That is an area of great concern,” Beshear said, claiming that Warren County’s local positivity rate now exceeds 10 percent.
A spokeswoman for the Barren River District Health Department was unable to confirm that percentage.
“I would need the total number of tests given in Warren County, which is data we do not receive. We only receive data for positive results,” Ashli McCarty said in an email to the Daily News.
Warren County Public Schools Superintendent Rob Clayton did not immediately return a call Wednesday seeking comment about the district’s reopening plans.
On Tuesday, Clayton said in a statement to district families that he planned to reach out to Brown to “work toward a plausible path forward.” Clayton called the negative consequences of a late September start for vulnerable students and working families “insurmountable.”
“We are committed to the community we serve and feel compelled to do everything possible to support our students academically, socially and emotionally,” Clayton wrote in the statement. “They are counting on us to deliver. To do otherwise would be negligent and irresponsible.”
If there is a decision to amend the district’s school calendar, WCPS will convene a special board of education meeting in the near future, Clayton wrote Tuesday.
“Regardless of any potential changes, our start date remains Aug. 24, 2020, for all students, whether in-person/virtual academy or ‘all-virtual’ through distance learning,” Clayton wrote in the statement.
Bowling Green Independent School District Superintendent Gary Fields said in a statement Wednesday that he was continuing to confer with stakeholders about returning to school this month. He acknowledged speaking with Brown and other state officials.
“We are still working to evaluate all options available to our community,” Fields wrote. “Our district will hold a special board of education meeting on Friday afternoon. I understand that everyone is anxious to have a decision and make plans for the school year. We are working to meet the needs of our students (and) will let you know as soon as we can.”
Where do other schools stand?
The recommendation Beshear made on Monday is for both public and private schools.
However, some private schools across the state have opted to continue with their reopening plans. This includes schools under the administration of the Catholic Diocese of Owensboro, and St. Joseph Interparochial School in Bowling Green is among them.
“The Catholic Schools Office for the Diocese of Owensboro respects and appreciates Kentucky Gov. Andy Beshear’s recommendation to begin the 2020-2021 school year with non-traditional instruction until Sept. 28,” the diocese said in a statement Wednesday. “However, after consultation with diocesan administration, the Catholic Schools Office for the diocese has made the decision to continue their plan to reopen all of their 17 schools at some point during the month of August. This plan includes in-person instruction for all students, five days a week.”
David Kessler, superintendent of the Catholic Schools Office for the diocese, explained the decision in the statement:
“We have created very strict protocols, established by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, the Kentucky Department for Public Health, the Kentucky Department of Education, and our local health departments, that we believe will make our students ‘low risk’ for the spread of the coronavirus,” Kessler said. “Every Catholic school across the diocese will observe physical distancing and mask requirements and have created plans for guiding hallway traffic flow and eating meals. Our school leadership has been working diligently to develop the proper safety protocols that are needed to fit each specific school’s needs since the inception of this virus in March.
“We understand the hard decisions that our public school partners have to make in these uncertain times,” Kessler said. “We believe that the significantly fewer number of students that we have enrolled in our Catholic schools makes this situation much more manageable for us in regards to physical distancing guidelines. Our administration, principals, and teachers believe we are prepared to provide a safe, educational environment for the students we serve.”
On the other hand, several public school districts have announced they will delay the start of in-person instruction consistent with Beshear’s guidance.
That includes the Russellville Independent School District, which Tuesday announced it would begin the school year Aug. 26 digitally and give students the option of participating in a virtual learning academy or teacher-led distance learning. The virtual academy option requires students to commit to it, meaning they cannot simply return to school when in-person classes are advisable.
Barren County Schools announced its board will meet Thursday to consider the governor’s recommendation. It shared a survey asking for parent feedback on its Twitter account Wednesday.
Glasgow Independent Schools announced it would start the school year with a distance learning Aug. 25 and that in-person classes would start no earlier than Sept. 28.
Tara Martin, the district’s supervisor of instruction, told Daily News reporter Micheal Compton that the district wants to bring students back in-person as soon as possible.
“We are still going to start school. It’s just not the model we had hoped,” Martin said.
“It is our hope that it is as soon as humanly possible to get our students back in the building. There is just something about that direct instruction from a teacher, but also making those connections and building those relationships with kids that is hard to do over a computer. Also the social and emotional well-being of our students is something that is important to us. We just feel like the best way to take care of our kids is to have them in-person. As soon as we can do that, that is our goal. That is our overall plan,” Martin said.