FRANKFORT, Ky. (AP) — Kentucky lawmakers passed a bill Tuesday that would provide up to 10 more days of remote instruction for use at the school, classroom, grade or group level for the 2021-2022 academic year. It now heads to the House.
The legislation does not provide for unlimited nontraditional instruction, or NTI, days, which some pushed for last August, when coronavirus outbreaks forced schools to close temporarily. In 2020, the state's GOP-dominated General Assembly returned schools to their pre-pandemic limit of 10 NTI days. A law passed during a September special session that gave school districts 20 remote learning days expired Dec. 31.
Though the bill passed in a bipartisan, 31-2 vote, some Democratic senators criticized it. Jefferson County-area Sen. David Yates argued that it would not provide enough flexibility to Jefferson County Public Schools, the state's largest school district. Its size, Yates said, makes it more difficult for the district to maneuver without enough days to plan.
The district currently has hundreds of staff members in quarantine and only six nontraditional instruction days left. Jefferson County Superintendent Marty Pollio said Monday that more NTI days would be necessary if the current surge in coronavirus cases continued.
Sen. Max Wise, who sponsored the legislation, insisted that the proposal still allows flexibility for the schools while keeping students in classrooms as much as possible. In addition to extra remote learning days, he explained, schools have the ability to add hours to the day or start earlier, allowing them to meet the required number of instructional hours for the school year.
“Sometimes the safest place for our children is within the school walls," Wise, a Republican, added. In-person instruction, he said, gives students access to meals and “love and compassion."
A bill aimed at allowing Kentucky students to receive excused absences from school for mental health reasons also won approval from the House Education Committee on Tuesday.
The measure, which gained bipartisan support, goes to the full House next.
Under the bill, each Kentucky school district's student attendance policy would have to include provisions for excused absences due to a student's mental or behavioral health status.
Republican Rep. Bobby McCool and Democratic Rep. Lisa Willner are the bill's lead sponsors. McCool said the bill makes no changes regarding the number of excused absences allowed.
The bill sponsors allowed three students to discuss the bill's importance at the committee hearing.
The students discussed the stress the COVID-19 pandemic has caused. Students had to adjust from months of at-home learning to being back at school and surrounded by classmates, they said.
The legislation signals that mental health is as important as physical health and would encourage students to talk about mental health issues and get the help they need, they said.
The legislation is House Bill 44.