After navigating the COVID closures for parts of two school years, teachers and administrators, students and parents are facing the possibility that a third academic year could be upended. The surging Delta variant is forcing education and public health officials to rethink their protocols just weeks ahead of the start of school in the commonwealth.
“If we’ve learned nothing else through this COVID-19 pandemic, we have learned the value of having students in classrooms in front of a teacher, face to face,” says Carrie Ballinger, superintendent of Rockcastle County Schools, which serves about 2,800 students.
Jefferson County Superintendent Marty Pollio shares those sentiments.
“My entire focus is to make sure that we stay in-person learning for 175 school days this year,” he says.
The question is how to do that safely, given that only about 45 percent of the state’s population is fully vaccinated, and children under 12 are not yet approved for the COVID vaccines. Meanwhile, some Americans continue resist calls to wear a mask to help slow the spread of the virus.
On Monday, Gov. Andy Beshear said the best way for districts to avoid interruptions in their academic and athletic calendars is to require all students and adults, whether vaccinated or not, to wear masks while at school. But he stopped short of issuing a mask mandate for schools. Instead, he recommended that districts require unvaccinated students and adults to wear a mask while indoors on school grounds. State officials say the governor’s recommendations align with current recommendations from state and federal public health officials as well as the American Academy of Pediatrics.
But they also warn that guidance could change, depending on the extent of the current surge in cases.
Pollio proposed to his board of education a universal mask requirement in all Jefferson County Schools for students and adults, regardless of vaccination status. (The JCPS board approved his recommendation Tuesday night.) He says that is the best approach for the state’s largest school district, which serves more than 96,000 students.
“The guidance has said to us, if you do have that challenge tracking who is vaccinated and who [isn’t], then you should implement universal masking,” says Pollio.
Choice or Mandates for Masking?
Some parents already oppose mask mandates for students. The group Let Them Learn argues that forcing children to wear a mask all day is unreasonable and creates a barrier to learning. Dawn Perkins, the organizer of the group, contends parents should be given a choice.
“If you want to wear a mask, wear a mask. If you don’t, don’t,” she says. “They want to be able to determine what’s in the best interest of their kids and have a voice or a seat at the decision-making table.”
Pollio says his students “have been great” about wearing masks, even during summer school sessions. He says he understands parents’ frustration over masking, but he adds that’s no reason to ignore the guidance of multiple public health agencies.
While giving parents the choice may work for some situations, Kentucky Education Commissioner Jason Glass says it’s not a good strategy for a highly transmissible virus. He says a decision made by one family could affect countless other students and school staff.
“That’s why we can’t just say ‘do whatever you want’ as a public health strategy,” says Glass. “We have to think about what are the experts saying.”
Fayette County’s new superintendent Demetrus Liggins has yet to recommend updated guidelines for his schools, but mask opponents argued against a mandate at a school board meeting in Lexington earlier this week.
Time is limited for school boards to set new policies. Fayette and Jefferson County schools are slated to open on Aug. 11. Rockcastle County schools don’t open until Aug. 25, which Ballinger says gives them more time to monitor COVID case numbers, review the latest health guidance, and speak with local stakeholders before making a decision about masks.
“I currently feel like in this rural community of Rockcastle County that there’s going to be this sentiment that it needs to be an option for our students and for our staff,” says Ballinger.
Other Options for Controlling COVID
Masking isn’t the only mitigation strategy schools can employ. The U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention also recommends social distancing in schools where not everyone is vaccinated, according to Eric Kennedy, director of advocacy for the Kentucky School Boards Association.
Districts can also use contact tracing and quarantines to limit virus spread and review local COVID statistics to determine other strategies as needed.
“We have to remain agile; we have to keep gathering data and we have to keep thinking,” says Glass.
Many of these protocols are already familiar to students who returned for some in-person instruction at the end of the last school year. Glass says administrators did an excellent job of implementing those strategies and preventing schools from being transmission points in their communities.
Local school boards can’t require vaccinations for students, says Kennedy, but some districts are encouraging staff and students to get vaccinated. Ballinger says Rockcastle County is partnering with their local hospital to promote vaccination clinics ahead of the start of school.
The Kentucky Education Association has advocated vaccinations for teachers since the vaccines became available, says KEA President Eddie Campbell. While many teachers have gotten vaccinated, he says some are still hesitant to get the shot.
“The vaccine is very safe and it’s highly effective in combatting the spread of COVID,” says Campbell, “and it allows for our educators to get back into classroom where they want to be.”
While quarantining remains a complicated issue, Pollio says it’s the one thing that might force his schools to close. He says if too many teachers, bus drivers, and other staff had to quarantine at home, JCPS might not be able to keep schools open for in-person instruction.
The Emotional Needs of Returning Students
Once students do return to the classroom, teachers may face a period of adjustment as everyone reintegrates to in-person instruction.
“When our babies go back to school, you may have some different behavior issues that you didn’t think you had before,” says Penny Christian, vice president of leadership outreach for the Kentucky PTA.
After a year or more at home, some students may have forgotten how to act in a classroom setting, says Christian. They also endured a global pandemic and maybe even the loss of family members or friends, and they witnessed last year’s protests against the police-involved killings of George Floyd and Breonna Taylor. Christian says those combined traumas could create real challenges for teachers and administrators in the new school year.
“So when we talk about social-emotional learning, it’s not just going to have to be, go see the counselor,” says Christian. “They’re going to have to meet these babies where they are.”
In the Rockcastle County schools, Ballinger says the emotional needs of students will be a priority for her educators.
“We have created a trauma plan,” she says. “We have hired some additional mental health advocates, mental health counselors that we are using to address those needs that we know are going to be apparent.”
Ballinger says her schools will also screen every student and use that information to create an individualized learning plan that addresses their specific needs. They are also implementing what she calls a social-emotional curriculum from kindergarten through 12th grade that will devote class time to these issues each day.
Glass says he is encouraging districts statewide to put student care before educational content at the beginning of the new school year.
“We think about how can we take care of this child and attend to their social-emotional needs and any trauma that they have,” says the commissioner. “We’ve got lots of work to do to catch kids up and we know academically they’re behind, but the first thing we need to do is establish those relationships with them.”
That will place even more burdens on educators, who Campbell says may have their own mental health needs.
“We’re all going to have to reacclimate to being back in person,” says Campbell. “Educators are going to need extra supports. We’re going to have to give them grace and time to meet the needs of their students.”
Schools will have some help in dealing with these issues. The American Rescue Plan Act passed by Congress in March included funding for school districts, which Kennedy says can be used for a range of strategic investments to support teachers and students.
Kentucky schools are slated to receive about $2.1 billion in ARPA funds.
“Your school boards are reaching out for input from all of the stakeholders of the community,” says Kennedy. “They are crafting those plans for how they will invest that COVID relief money for many of these things that we’re talking about, not only addressing learning loss but… everything our children need and that our staff need.”
Beyond the instructional losses children experienced during the pandemic, Pollio says COVID exposed a range of other challenges that students have faced for years, including child poverty, food insecurity, and homelessness. He says the pandemic also exacerbated those inequities. But he says this money can help schools provide the wraparound services that children need to deal with traumas unrelated to the pandemic.
“Now with our stimulus funding, I believe we’re going to be able to ramp that up even more and do some incredible things to support kids both academically and with that social-emotional piece,” says Pollio.