As the state faces exponential growth in COVID-19 cases, Gov. Andy Beshear ordered all public and private schools to close starting this week and switch to virtual instruction.
The move comes just weeks after many students got to return to the classroom for the first time since schools shuttered in March during the initial wave of the pandemic. Districts reopened under rigorous protocols recommended by state education administrators and public health officials.
“Schools in Kentucky should be commended for the job that they’ve done, putting in layers of these mitigation strategies and defenses to keep virus out, or if the virus comes into a school that it is contained and limited,” says Kentucky Education Commissioner Jason Glass. “We haven’t seen evidence of widespread school-based transmission.”
But as community transmission escalated in October and November, Glass says it became harder for schools to remain open as more students, teachers, and staff went into quarantine over exposure to someone with COVID. Last week alone, more than 7,800 students and staff from schools statewide were in quarantine.
“That’s causing a lot of our smaller, rural districts to have to shut down operations just because the disruption makes it impossible for school as we knew it to continue,” says the commissioner.
Remote learning comes at a cost, though, according to Glass. Virtual instruction presents academic, social, and technical challenges for teachers, students, and parents. Not all families have access to computers and reliable internet service. Some 24,000 students face homelessness or housing instability, while others have physical or developmental conditions that make learning remotely harder. Glass says that it is impossible to predict what long-term impacts the pandemic will have on these young learners.
“What I think we can expect is all of the challenges, the inequities between different groups of students who have special needs, who are homeless, who are economically disadvantaged, who have a disability, all of those inequities are going to be worse because of what we’re experiencing right now,” he says.
Long-Term Impacts on Students Uncertain
This spring, schools had to quickly shift from in-person to remote instruction and scramble to find computers or other digital devices to help all students keep up with their studies. Glass says international manufacturing and shipping disruptions caused by the pandemic made it hard for some districts to acquire all the devices they needed for students. Internet access was also a problem in rural areas that lack high-speed connections, or among families who couldn’t afford home service.
Despite those challenges, Glass says Kentucky is well positioned on technology infrastructure compared to other states thanks to decades of investments.
“What’s the most difficult step is that last mile to the student and connecting them,” says Glass. “They’re the most difficult to reach, the most expensive to reach.”
Schools, local governments, businesses, and other groups have stepped up to provide devices and greater internet access. But Glass fears even those efforts won’t reach every Kentucky student.
“Make no mistake, we’ve got thousands of kids that we’re losing track of and we really won’t know the impact of that until later,” he says.
KDE also operates the state schools for the deaf and the blind, which have been closed to in-person learning since this spring. Glass says the pandemic has disrupted special services for other students as well, like those who need speech therapy or counseling.
“We really have to look at what’s in that student’s IEP or individualized education plan that identifies what specific services they are supposed to get,” he says. “Some of those services can be delivered remotely or electronically, so in those cases our advice has been deliver it... the greatest extent you can.”
While Kentucky did not conduct the large-scale educational assessments in the spring, Glass says state officials are preparing for that testing to occur in the spring of 2021. He says other measures have continued, albeit shorter in length and delivered electronically, to gauge student progress even during the pandemic.
Schools and communities have also gotten creative about the social aspects of education. Districts held drive-in graduation services this spring, and extracurricular clubs continued virtually.
“Schools have done a commendable job trying to create those experiences to the greatest extent they can,” says Glass. “I also have faith that kids are really resilient and they can bounce back from a lot, but they’re going to need supports on how that happens.”
Focusing on Equity, Preparing for Legislative Session
In October, KDE announced the appointment of Thomas Woods-Tucker as the department’s first chief equity officer. Glass says Woods-Tucker will review district practices and policies around systemic racism and implicit bias, and collaborate with schools, administrators, and teachers on how to resolve equity issues. He says children of color, as well as those who are economically disadvantaged or disabled, have struggled historically.
“Public education means that every child who walks into any of our buildings is served, and that they are given the supports that they need to pursue their dreams and be successful,” says Glass.
The commissioner says everyone has implicit bias to some degree, and that it is important to become aware of bias and consciously work against those thoughts and behaviors. He says those teachers and staff who cannot change don’t deserve to work in education, but he says the majority of people simply need the opportunity to change.
“We all believe that everyone is capable of growing and learning and getting better, and that includes our adults as well,” says Glass.
Looking ahead to the 2021 session of the Kentucky General Assembly, Glass says school funding will be a hot topic. Unlike most off-year, 30-day sessions, lawmakers will need to craft a one-year budget to carry the state through the second half of the biennium. (Given the uncertainties of the pandemic, legislators passed a rare one-year budget at the end of the 2020 session.)
“There are lots of big ideas that are being floated around and talked about,” says Glass, “but I think it all going to come back to can we stabilize the funding system, not just for education but for really everything that the legislature... ends up funding.”
With even larger Republican majorities in both the state Senate and House of Representatives, Glass says he also expects to hear more discussion about scholarship tax credits and charter schools.
“Adapting educational structures so that they better serve kids, in my professional opinion, is a good thing,” says the commissioner. “But we always want to be thinking about how can we increase the capacities of our school systems, how can we make them more effective, how can we support them more so that they can do more good in our community. And we have to conversely be careful about are we putting in place policies that weaken them.
“These are public dollars, and wherever those dollars go comes a moral commitment that you serve every child,” he continues. “So if we end up with charter schools, if we end up with tax credits that flow dollars into private schools, that also comes with a commitment that every child that shows up at one of those doors gets served.”