Anticipating the pitfalls of reopening schools amid the coronavirus pandemic, more than 2,500 educators and district staff from across Kentucky joined an online town hall event Thursday to submit hundreds of questions for state education and public health officials.
During the event, participants raised questions about the safety of in-person instruction, the specifics of contact tracing and quarantine and how schools will be monitored for compliance with public health guidelines.
The two-hour event was streamed online and included a review of the latest guidance for reopening schools.
“There is no absolute in this,” said state Public Health Commissioner Dr. Steven Stack, who early on in the event reminded participants of the inherent trade-offs with reopening schools. “We cannot guarantee safety. We can reduce risk, and we reduce risk effectively.”
State officials spent much of the event emphasizing social distancing, widespread mask use and good hand hygiene to curb the spread of COVID-19 while also clarifying some of the more specific expectations for schools.
For students between the first and 12th grade, barring any health conditions that would make it dangerous, mask use will be the norm, especially when social distancing isn’t feasible.
That said, when asked about the enforcement of state guidelines, Interim Education Commissioner Kevin Brown said the approach won’t be top-down.
“We’re not going to have the mask police. We’re not going to have the social distancing police,” he said, adding that compliance will stem from local communities and to some extent involve self-policing. “We ask everyone to act in good faith.”
Absolute compliance with state guidelines likely won’t be possible in all cases, state officials said, which is why teachers and school staff will be asked to take some additional action to assist with contact tracing.
“One thing that you’re going to be asked to do if you are a teacher is to keep manifests,” said Dr. Connie White, commissioner for clinical affairs with the Department for Public Health.
That includes keeping detailed seating charts and bus manifests to assist with contact tracing efforts.
“The manifests will help to keep your whole school from being closed down because the contact tracers can come in and very surgically determine who’s your high-risk, who needs to be quarantined for the next 14 days,” White said.
In the event of a positive COVID-19 result, the patient in question will need to self-isolate for 10 days until they are symptom-free and fever-free for at least 24 hours. Individuals who come into contact with these patients could be told to quarantine for 14 days, depending on the circumstances surrounding possible exposure.
Teachers and school staff won’t be required to take another test before returning to work, White said, because there simply aren’t enough tests to make that viable.
White said the state has hired 800 additional contact tracers who will be deployed throughout the state to assist local health departments hurt by slashed budgets.
“They’re not all sitting here in Frankfort. We’ve got them across the state,” she said.
In school, students will be expected to wear masks or face coverings when they aren’t seated at their desks or moving. The desks themselves should be situated at least 6 feet apart, officials said.
Some participants questioned whether temperature screenings before school go far enough in limiting exposure events given that many coronavirus cases don’t present with fevers 100.5 degrees or higher. White acknowledged the gap, but said screening for temperatures is still worthwhile: “We can catch those folks,” she said.
Asked how preschool and kindergarten teachers will be protected, given that their students will not be wearing masks, officials said the teachers themselves will be wearing masks and promoting frequent hand-washing among their students. Additionally, students will social distance during lunch periods when mask use isn’t possible.
Educators also asked about the availability of funding to comply with these requests, with state officials stressing that support will come from Coronavirus Aid, Relief, and Economic Security Act dollars.
Another round of federal relief will be critical, Brown said.
“We know that you don’t have adequate funds right now in a normal school year to provide Kleenex and sanitizer … We also know that there are going to be expenses that we don’t even know about yet related to COVID-19,” Brown said.
– Follow education reporter Aaron Mudd on Twitter @BGDN_edbeat or visit bgdailynews.com.