It’s an enormously complex problem with no easy solutions: How to launch the new K-12 school year in Kentucky while the COVID-19 pandemic continues to ravage the nation.
Bringing children into classrooms provides for a more normal instructional and social environment but it also risks spreading the coronavirus among students, teachers and school staff, and then them spreading it to their families at home. There’s also logistics required to get children to mask and social distance, and to ensure that buses, classrooms, cafeterias and restrooms are properly sanitized.
Virtual instruction brings its own challenges, from ensuring equal academic engagement for all students regardless of their access to technology, to parents having to tend children who are staying home all day.
“Opening these schools has so many complexities,” says Stephen Pruitt, Ph.D., president of the Southern Regional Education Board and a former Kentucky commissioner of education. “We’re seeing across the south… people who are making plan A, plan B, and plan C, and they’re hoping that one of those will actually work.”
In Kentucky the state Department of Education (KDE) is working with public health officials to develop options and protocols for reopening, but ultimately school boards in each district will determine how the new academic year will unfold in their counties and communities.
“It’s about reducing exposure,” says Kelly Foster, an associate commissioner at KDE, “Having things in place that can reduce the amount of exposure to our teachers, our cafeteria workers, bus drivers, our students, and we’re trying to do the best we can to provide that guidance.”
Lessons Learned from the Last School Year
When the pandemic forced the state’s public schools to stop in-person learning in mid-March, districts went to nontraditional instruction (NTI) so students could continue their studies while at home.
“We did not stop educating the kids of Kentucky,” says Foster.
The General Assembly stepped in to grant schools an unlimited number of NTI days to complete the academic year. But the rapid switch to distance learning was not easy: Foster says 80 districts, including the state’s largest, Jefferson County, had never attempted NTI before. And some students – about 45,000, according to estimates – couldn’t fully participate because of they lacked access to computers, an internet connection, or both. Some children reported sitting in their school’s parking lot, or the parking lot of a fast-food restaurant to get a Wi-Fi signal.
Even with the challenges, Foster says about 93 percent of the state’s students were able to continue their studies through virtual means. Those experiences are helping educators overhaul distance-learning activities into what some are calling NTI 2.0.
“There’s a lot of things that kids can do at home, but they’ve got to have the right direction, and it can’t just be packets of worksheets,” says Pruitt. “We’ve got to rethink how we’re providing that instruction.”
Rowan County special education teacher Allison Slone agrees.
“It should look much different than NTI did in the spring, and that’s going to take a lot of work on our educators’ parts,” she says.
Districts to Offer Students and Parents Options
Local planning committees in districts across the state have been at work for weeks to prepare for the new school year. They’ve reviewed health and safety recommendations and they’ve explored in-person versus distance-learning options.
“As teachers we know in-person is going to be the best, but a lot of them are having anxiety about coming back and that’s very understandable,” says Noraa Ransey, an elementary school teacher in Calloway County and the 2020 Kentucky Education Association Teacher of the Year.
Officials had hoped the coronavirus would be under control by now, but Kentucky and many other states are experiencing a resurgence of COVID-19 just as many schools had planned to go back into session.
“Most districts are planning to have in-person with an online distance learning option,” says Eric Kennedy, director of advocacy for the Kentucky School Boards Association.
Suburban Oldham County Schools and the more rural Caverna Independent School District are among the systems planning to offer both in-person and online learning options.
“Our goal is to provide parents opportunities to make a choice if they need to for what they consider to be the best thing for their children,” says Oldham County Schools Superintendent Greg Schultz.
His district voted to create a “virtual academy” option for students and parents. The online classes will follow the same curriculum as in-person classes; the students will have to convene for virtual classes at set times, and they are expected to meet the same standards as children attending in person.
“The virtual academy may not be for everybody, but we want to make sure that it is an option for them,” says Schultz.
Caverna Superintendent Cornelius Faulkner also plans in-person and virtual options for all of his 760 students, starting August 25.
“Our priority has been around developing a plan to keep our students and staff as healthy and as safe as possible, but at the same time maintaining a high level of instructional integrity,” says Faulkner. “We are striving to keep our educational process seamless and consistent for all students regardless of their location.”
The Jefferson County Board of Education is expected to vote this week on a plan to offer only nontraditional, online instruction for at least the first six weeks of the school year. School Board Member Corrie Shull says Superintendent Marty Pollio has done an excellent job soliciting community input and working with school leadership and teachers to develop a strategy to balance health and academic needs.
“Dr. Polio has presented a plan that is really convincing that NTI is the best way to move forward, at least initially,” he says.
Districts that offer in-person instruction will face their own set of challenges. Foster says students and staff will be required to wear masks and maintain social distancing in classrooms, hallways, cafeterias, and school buses. There will also be daily temperature checks: If a child or adult staff member has a temperature greater than 100.4, they won’t be allowed into the school building. Foster warns the protocols will require patience and flexibility from everyone, whether that’s allowing for children who can’t mask because of a medical condition, to balancing health protocols that may conflict with school security regulations.
Student Mental Health, Teacher Absences, and Assessment Concerns
Teachers bring their own set of concerns to school reopening. Rowan County’s Allison Slone and Calloway County’s Noraa Ransey say they’re worried about the mental health of students.
“Our kids have not been in school since March 13th,” says Ransey. “We cannot jump right in and start with math and reading. We’ve got to take some time for them to refocus and reengage, and get back from the survival brain to the learning brain.”
Some teachers also have their own health issues that may make returning to the classroom risky. Others are worried about losing pay if they or a family member gets sick and they have to miss work for an extended period. Kennedy says he expects the state board to pass an emergency provision to allow local school districts to grant teachers additional leave time as needed.
Teacher absences also bring up the issue of substitute teachers. Foster says many substitutes are retired teachers, which means their age likely puts them at high risk of complications from COVID-19. Given how easily coronavirus spreads, those retirees may opt out of serving as substitutes.
“So it is going to be a challenge that districts are going to have to face,” says Foster. “Are there going to be enough subs out there to meet the needs of our students?”
In Oldham County, Schultz says he has enough substitute teachers “on paper,” but he’s also limiting professional development and administrative meetings that might take teachers away from their classrooms just in case. Faulkner says a shortage of substitute teachers would force Caverna schools to close.
Teachers and administrators also worry about state and federal student assessment requirements. Kennedy says the federal government waived standardized testing requirements for the end of the last school year, and he hopes they will do the same for the new year.
“We believe that this year is going to be so unusual in so many ways,” says Kennedy, “that it would really be difficult to compare our students’ achievement on those exams to prior years.”
Teachers Slone and Ransey say they will continue to help their students advance academically with or without the annual Kentucky Performance Rating for Educational Progress (K-PREP) assessments. If there is testing, they say it must take into consideration the instructional challenges presented by the pandemic.
“I think the assessment just needs to look different moving forward through this pandemic,” says Slone.
As a superintendent, Shultz says assessments have their place, but he also thinks the tests wouldn’t be missed if suspended.
“Our teachers worked as hard and our kids worked as hard if not harder than if the assessment was still there,” says Schultz. “I’ve never been a believer that we have to have a test hanging over our head to perform well, so it wouldn’t bother me if that testing went away.”
Finally, educators and administrators worry how all the changes and interruptions to traditional instruction will impact the achievement gaps that plague many Kentucky schools.
“I’m deeply concerned about the widening of the achievement gap, and that being exacerbated by COVID-19,” says Jefferson County school board member Shull. “I think our district is doing a good job of attempting to provide wrap-around services to ensure that students who need additional helps have access to those.”
Concerns over equity and achievement will only increase the need to ease students back into their academic activities this fall, according to Foster.
“We know that there are going to be students that are behind when they come back,” she says. “We’re really going to have to figure out... meeting their social-emotional needs, getting them refocused on being in a classroom or on a platform for virtual learning. So there’s a lot of things that have to happen in the opening weeks of school before we even really start to think about covering content.”