With coronavirus cases rising across the country and in Kentucky, teachers showed up at a Warren County Public Schools’ board meeting Thursday to voice their concerns about the district’s reopening plan.
Among them was South Warren High School physics teacher Matthew Bryant, who worried that reopening schools for students and staff could contribute to the spread of COVID-19.
He acknowledged the tough decisions the district is facing.
“You all are in impossible positions. You have to make decisions that involve so many different competing factors and trade-offs, and I don’t envy your position, but the coronavirus is currently increasing in our country. It’s increasing in our state. It’s increasing in a nearby state, Tennessee,” Bryant said. “ … I’m worried that we’re rushing into this.”
Given the circumstances, Bryant said he thought the district was doing its best to plan for a reopening Aug. 12. In recent weeks, he said, he’s even praised the district’s efforts among his colleagues.
Still the coronavirus, which has killed more than 130,000 people across the country, casts a grim shadow, he said.
“When you look at the (U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention) guidelines for reopening schools, our plan for reopening is somewhere between more risk and highest risk,” Bryant said. “I might be more comfortable with that if the virus was decreasing in numbers, but it’s not, and I’m really worried that we’re going too fast.”
Ultimately, the district’s school board unanimously voted to approve a revised school calendar that will enable schools to reopen Aug. 12 and offer students either in-person or online instruction.
The district has asked parents to clarify their preferences by filling out an intent form available on the district’s website by Friday. Additionally, several virtual learning days have been built into the school’s academic calendar in a effort to give teachers more time to plan and schools more time to disinfect facilities.
The school board’s decision came as Gov. Andy Beshear announced 413 new coronavirus cases Thursday, bringing the state’s total to 21,083 cases. Beshear also announced five new deaths, meaning 650 Kentuckians have now lost their lives to the respiratory disease.
“What we are seeing across the country is alarming,” Beshear said in a news release.
“We are seeing state after state not just facing escalating cases, but facing devastation,” Beshear said. “As of today, Florida’s hospitals have now run out of ICU beds. This is when people die because the system is overwhelmed. People are going to die who would not otherwise have died. In Arizona and Texas, they are bringing in refrigerated trucks because people are dying so fast, there is no room for them in morgues. That ought to convince everybody of the seriousness of the situation we face and what a critical moment right now is.”
Some research has suggested that children, particularly young children, are less susceptible to contracting COVID-19, but that doesn’t make them immune. Beshear reiterated the need for people to wear masks in public or in close quarters with non-immediate family members.
“Today, we have a record number of kids under 5 diagnosed with COVID-19. These kids are counting on us to do the right thing,” Beshear said. “Our new cases come from all types of counties. And remember, deaths follow cases.”
Ultimately, Bryant said, there’s a need for more concrete research examining the role schools play in spreading COVID-19 and its impact in children.
“If we don’t have answers to those questions, how can we safely open schools? I’m worried that if Warren County Public Schools opens too early, then we will be the guinea pigs that provide this research,” Bryant said.
Bryant was joined by Drakes Creek Middle School teacher Jeanie Smith. She said the district should revisit its reopening plans, “whether it’s a delay or whether it’s a virtual start.”
“The first thing I want to do is encourage you to delay the start of school until we see new cases trending downward consistently,” Smith said.
Current guidelines – which recommend students remain 6 feet apart when not wearing masks – are not feasible, she said. “There’s no way I can distance in my classroom,” Smith said.
For Smith, the coronavirus is personal – her husband is on the frontlines treating patients in a COVID-19 intensive care unit.
“He is dealing with this firsthand. We are strong mask supporters,” she said.
Widespread mask use has helped stop the spread of COVID-19, and it’s become a personal choice for many, Smith said.
“Lots of people aren’t believing the science behind mask-wearing, and I’m very concerned that we will even have teachers who aren’t enforcing this in their classrooms appropriately,” Smith said.
“What this is going to do is it’s going to place an extra burden on some of our younger children,” she said.
She worried that children might be peer-pressured into removing their masks in the classroom during mask breaks. “I would push for masks on in the classroom,” she said. “ … It reduces risks to teachers, who are more susceptible.”
Several board members defended the school’s reopening efforts, which have been shaped by a task force of stakeholders.
Board member Lloyd Williford said he personally read the group’s report and recommendations.
“I think it’s very well-written, very well-thought-out,” he said. “Obviously, I don’t know that we could catch every possible scenario out there, but we try to mitigate the opportunity for the spread of the virus.”
As part of its reopening plan, and for students who attend in-person, the district will ask parents to give their children temperature checks before school each morning. Masks will be the norm for most children (with a few health exemptions), and WCPS Superintendent Rob Clayton has repeatedly said the district will aim for social distancing when possible. High-tech, electro-static sprayers will be used to disinfect surfaces, he said.
That said, Williford is not without his own concerns: one of his family members teaches at Richardsville Elementary School.
“We’ve got to come together as a group and try to do the best we can do to survive this and work our way through it, but the hybrid plan seems to me, right now, to be the best idea because it does give choice to parents,” Williford said.
Board member Kevin Jackson said he understood the speakers’ concerns.
“We do listen, and I feel your pain. I feel your concerns,” he said. “I have a grandson that’s special to me starting kindergarten at Alvaton (Elementary School) this year.”
Board member Amy Duvall acknowledged the difficult choice parents face, but she stood firm in her belief that the district is ready to face whatever lies ahead.
“I will tell you that my son will be returning to in-person school Aug. 12. He is very excited about it,” she said. “I have no magical thinking about the return to school. I believe that the process will require adjusting and adapting throughout the year … It will be a challenge when we start back to school Aug. 12, but it will be worth it, and I believe that we have the capacity to do what it takes to keep our students safe.”
– Follow education reporter Aaron Mudd on Twitter @BGDN_edbeat or visit bgdailynews.com.