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Challenges and Benefits of Remote Learning in Kentucky

Host Renee Shaw and guests discuss remote learning in Kentucky's education system during the 2020-21 school year while COVID-19 reduces in-person student attendance. Guests include: Jason Glass, Ed.D., commissioner of the Kentucky Department of Education; Marty Pollio, Ed.D., superintendent of the Jefferson County Public Schools; and Eddie Campbell, president of the Kentucky Education Association.
Season 27 Episode 32 Length 56:33 Premiere: 09/14/20

About

Kentucky Tonight

KET’s Kentucky Tonight, hosted by Renee Shaw, brings together an expert panel for in-depth analysis of major issues facing the Commonwealth.

This weekly program features comprehensive discussions with lawmakers, stakeholders and policy leaders that are moderated by award-winning journalist Renee Shaw.

For nearly three decades, Kentucky Tonight has been a source for complete and balanced coverage of the most urgent and important public affairs developments in the state of Kentucky.

Often aired live, viewers are encouraged to participate by submitting questions in real-time via email, Twitter or KET’s online form. Viewers with questions and comments may send an email to kytonight@ket.org or use the contact form. All messages should include first and last name and town or county. The phone number for viewer calls during the program is 800-494-7605.

After the broadcast, Kentucky Tonight programs are available on KET.org and via podcast (iTunes or Android). Files are normally accessible within 24 hours after the television broadcast.

Kentucky Tonight was awarded a 1997 regional Emmy by the Ohio Valley Chapter of the National Academy of Television Arts and Sciences. The series was also honored with a 1995 regional Emmy nomination.

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Renee Shaw is the Director of Public Affairs and Moderator at KET, currently serving as host of KET’s weeknight public affairs program Kentucky Edition, the signature public policy discussion series Kentucky Tonight, the weekly interview series Connections, Election coverage and KET Forums.

Since 2001, Renee has been the producing force behind KET’s legislative coverage that has been recognized by the Kentucky Associated Press and the National Educational Telecommunications Association. Under her leadership, KET has expanded its portfolio of public affairs content to include a daily news and information program, Kentucky Supreme Court coverage, townhall-style forums, and multi-platform program initiatives around issues such as opioid addiction and youth mental health.  

Renee has also earned top awards from the Ohio Valley Chapter of the National Academy of Television Arts and Sciences (NATAS), with three regional Emmy awards. In 2023, she was inducted into the Silver Circle of the NATAS, one of the industry’s highest honors recognizing television professionals with distinguished service in broadcast journalism for 25 years or more.  

Already an inductee into the Kentucky Civil Rights Hall of Fame (2017), Renee expands her hall of fame status with induction into Western Kentucky University’s Hall of Distinguished Alumni in November of 2023.  

In February of 2023, Renee graced the front cover of Kentucky Living magazine with a centerfold story on her 25 years of service at KET and even longer commitment to public media journalism. 

In addition to honors from various educational, civic, and community organizations, Renee has earned top honors from the Associated Press and has twice been recognized by Mental Health America for her years-long dedication to examining issues of mental health and opioid addiction.  

In 2022, she was honored with Women Leading Kentucky’s Governor Martha Layne Collins Leadership Award recognizing her trailblazing path and inspiring dedication to elevating important issues across Kentucky.   

In 2018, she co-produced and moderated a 6-part series on youth mental health that was awarded first place in educational content by NETA, the National Educational Telecommunications Association. 

She has been honored by the AKA Beta Gamma Omega Chapter with a Coretta Scott King Spirit of Ivy Award; earned the state media award from the Kentucky Society of the Daughters of the American Revolution in 2019; named a Charles W. Anderson Laureate by the Kentucky Personnel Cabinet in 2019 honoring her significant contributions in addressing socio-economic issues; and was recognized as a “Kentucky Trailblazer” by the University of Kentucky Martin School of Public Policy and Administration during the Wendell H. Ford Lecture Series in 2019. That same year, Shaw was named by The Kentucky Gazette’s inaugural recognition of the 50 most notable women in Kentucky politics and government.  

Renee was bestowed the 2021 Berea College Service Award and was named “Unapologetic Woman of the Year” in 2021 by the Community Action Council.   

In 2015, she received the Green Dot Award for her coverage of domestic violence, sexual assault & human trafficking. In 2014, Renee was awarded the Anthony Lewis Media Award from the KY Department of Public Advocacy for her work on criminal justice reform. Two Kentucky governors, Republican Ernie Fletcher and Democrat Andy Beshear, have commissioned Renee as a Kentucky Colonel for noteworthy accomplishments and service to community, state, and nation.  

A former adjunct media writing professor at Georgetown College, Renee traveled to Cambodia in 2003 to help train emerging journalists on reporting on critical health issues as part of an exchange program at Western Kentucky University. And, she has enterprised stories for national media outlets, the PBS NewsHour and Public News Service.  

Shaw is a 2007 graduate of Leadership Kentucky, a board member of CASA of Lexington, and a longtime member of the Frankfort/Lexington Chapter of The Links Incorporated, an international, not-for-profit organization of women of color committed to volunteer service. She has served on the boards of the Kentucky Historical Society, Lexington Minority Business Expo, and the Board of Governors for the Ohio Valley Chapter of the National Academy of Television Arts and Sciences. 

Host Renee Shaw smiling in a green dress with a KET set behind her.

Balancing Education Needs and Health Concerns During the Pandemic

Even with the academic year already underway, educators continue to debate the best approach to learning during the COVID-19 pandemic. Should schools use all-virtual learning to protect staff and students as well as their families from the further spread of the virus, or do they pursue in-person classes, which facilitates instruction and strengthens social relationships? Or is a hybrid model of part in-person, part online a better approach?

“We do have imperfect options – all of them have significant downsides,” says Kentucky Education Commissioner Jason Glass.

So far, 49 of the state’s 173 school districts have voted to resume in-person classes before Sept. 28. Gov. Andy Beshear recommended that date to school administrators last month, hoping the current surge in coronavirus cases would have eased. Many districts that have resumed in-person classes are offering students and families with health concerns the option stay home and participate virtually.

With case numbers and positivity rates still elevated, the Beshear Administration announced new guidance this week to help superintendents and boards of education decide the best approach for their communities. Under this framework, districts in areas with high testing positivity rates and hospital utilization are encouraged to move to virtual or non-traditional instruction (NTI).

“You have to look at data not just as an automatic trigger, because this says something, we do X or we do Y,” Glass says. “It’s really got to be based on what are the values in the community, what’s the virus level, are we prepared, are we ready, and then make an informed decision.”

Jefferson County Starts All Virtual

Back in July, the state’s largest school district announced it would begin the new academic year with six weeks of virtual instruction. Jefferson County Public Schools Superintendent Marty Pollio says it was one of the toughest choices he’s had to make.

“It’s a difficult time to be a superintendent because you’re making difficult decisions and balancing out that health and safety along with student achievement,” says Pollio. “We have to acknowledge that NTI or virtual learning can never replicate in-person learning because that relationship piece [is] so important.”

When the pandemic hit in March, JCPS along with other school districts had just days to switch from classroom to virtual instruction. That was no small task for a district with 101,000 students, many of whom come from low-income families with little or no access to computers or the internet. Pollio says JCPS gave out more than 20,000 laptops to students last spring to help address that digital divide.

Now the district has handed out some 40,000 more laptops so that all students have a computer, not just one per household. Pollio says they’ve also created 10,000 internet hotspots to serve families without home internet service.

Instruction started on Aug. 25 with a few hiccups. After inappropriate content was posted to several class feeds, district officials switched to a different, more secure video conferencing platform. But that meant students and teachers had to install, configure, and learn the new software while keeping up with their class assignments. Pollio says they’ve now resolved most of those issues.

“There are no good, perfect options with what we do right now,” he says. “We are in a world now where so many things are messy and difficult and we have to do the best job we possibly can to support kids.”

Elsewhere Around the State

Internet access is an even bigger issue in more rural parts of the commonwealth. In Christian County, Superintendent Christopher Bentzel has partnered with other local officials to create hotspots around fire departments and other government buildings, and to provide hotspots for low-income families.

“We’re close to closing that [access] gap, but we’re not quite there yet,” he says.

Christian County reopened on Aug. 26 with a combination of in-person and virtual learning for middle and high school students, and in-person classes for elementary students. Bentzel says a majority of parents requested in-person classes, but about a third of families opted for online instruction. He praises the teachers who work with those students through the district’s virtual learning academy.

“They do a great job of working out the problems and the kinks and the barriers for online learning for those students that opted not to return to in person classes,” says Bentzel.

Meanwhile the Covington Independent Schools started on Sept. 1 with all remote learning. Superintendent Alvin Garrison says his staff worked hard over the summer to fine-tune their curriculum for NTI and ensure all students would have the technology they need to participate. But with laptops in short supply due to high demand from schools nationwide, Garrison had to find another option.

“Currently we rent about 700 computers to ensure right now all of our families have at least one device within the home,” he says.

As of now, Garrison says his schools plan to switch to a hybrid model of instruction on Sept. 28. About 30 percent of families have elected to stay with online learning. Garrison says the other 70 percent will be split into two groups that will alternate between coming into school for in-person classes and staying home for virtual instruction. That way only about 35 percent of students will be in school on any particular day.

The Views of Teachers, Parents and Students

The pandemic has forced educators and administrators into making choices that have no easy answers, says Kentucky Education Association President Eddie Campbell. He praises teachers for turning on a dime last spring when schools had to close to in-person instruction, and for spending their summer months planning how to improve learning experiences this fall.

“Our teachers now are learning every single day how to interact better with their students,” says Campbell. “They’re also reaching out through Facebook, they’re reaching out through TikTok, they’re reaching out through Instagram. They want to make sure that their students have every advantage possible.”

KEA has urged schools to pursue virtual instruction as long as testing positivity rates remain above 4 percent. But Campbell understands why parents and students want to return to traditional classrooms. He says teachers and school administrators want that, too, and the best way to make that possible is for everyone to follow the recommended health protocols of wearing masks, social distancing, and hand washing.

“I think if anything, what this pandemic has shown is the importance of public education,” says Campbell. “A place that our students can go, can be nurtured, can learn, can grow, and we all want that to be successful.”

The switch from traditional to virtual methods of instruction also has forced students and adults to adapt on short notice. Parents have had to arrange childcare when schools are closed, and to serve as adjunct teachers and tech support when their children need help with their online studies. Students have endured frustrating technical challenges and being unable to have face-to-face interactions with their friends and teachers.

“It’s been a challenge, but I think it’s definitely one we’re all going to grow from,” says Kade Scott, a senior at Floyd Central High School in Floyd County.

Scott, along with Caleb Bates of Breathitt County and Anna Williams of Anderson County, are members of the Kentucky Department of Education’s Student Advisory Council.

“If I had the choice, I would go to school,” says Williams, whose parents opted for virtual instruction because Anna is diabetic and could be at greater risk from COVID-related complications.

“I know my parents are protecting me and they are doing the right thing,” she says. “I’m hoping that this virus will get under control to the point where I do feel safe, [and] I can go to school and experience my senior year.”

Students in rural Breathitt County have faced poor internet access as well as food security issues, according to senior Caleb Bates. With schools closed, many low-income families have had to find alternatives to the free or reduced-price school meals that help feed their children

“Here in Breathitt County we do have a food pick-up plan that is taking place out of our schools’ cafeterias, and I’m thankful to see that need being met,” says Bates.

Kristen Childress is among the parents advocating for a return to in-person instruction. As a member of a group called Let Them Learn Fayette County, she has grown frustrated with the quality of virtual instruction in the Lexington schools. She says parents want the best for their children, which she contends means returning to classroom instruction.

“As we see private schools and other districts go back to in-person, we want to be part of that choice, too,” says Childress. “We have a wonderful community who is ready and willing and able to do what it takes to get back in-person.”

In neighboring Jessamine County, Sarah Smorstad is a parent of four children and a pre-school teacher. She says she worries about the children who live in homes that aren’t conducive to remote learning either due to technology issues or because of absent or unsupportive parents.

“That hurts my teacher heart,” says Smorstad. “I really am concerned about this widening the gap of opportunity.”

Pandemic Challenges Point to Deeper Issues

School administrators agree that the pandemic could further deepen the achievement gaps that plague poor and minority students. Covington Independent Schools Superintendent Alvin Garrison says he’s heard research that indicates that Blacks are three times more likely to experience a range of harmful effects from COVID; Hispanic Americans are nine times more likely to have negative outcomes, he says.

“This pandemic has really showcased the inequities in public education… “We have to have must have the courage to tackle these issues... because this is just furthering the gap between the have and have nots.”

Achievement gaps among students are especially troublesome in Louisville. JCPS Superintendent Marty Pollio says his schools are filled with at-risk groups: Children of color comprise about half of his student population, and about two-thirds of students are on free or reduced lunch. The district also has nearly 6,000 homeless students and about 11,000 children who are still becoming fluent in English.

“This is not just an equity issue, this is a racial equity issue,” says Pollio. “We have to step up and own that.”

Given these challenges, Campbell says state and federal funding for education is crucial.

“COVID has shown a big light on all the inequities in education,” says the KEA president. “The digital divide was already there, the inequities in homework gaps was already there, and making sure we’re meeting the needs of those students [is] going to take a really big investment.”

While many districts plan to return to in-person learning in the coming weeks, state Education Commissioner Jason Glass warns that schools will likely continue to toggle between classroom and virtual instruction depending on how COVID-19 spreads during the fall and winter months. While such inconsistency is far from ideal, Glass contends it also has positive aspects.

“We’re learning in Kentucky... a lot about the importance of agility and adaptability,” the commissioner says. “The world is only going to get faster, it’s going to get more electronic, more automated, more interconnected, and so I think some of the skills that our educators and our students and our parents are learning right now are going to pay dividends for them on the other side of this pandemic.”

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Season 27 Episodes

The Economic State of the State

S27 E44 Length 56:34 Premiere Date 12/14/20

Reopening Kentucky Classrooms During a Coronavirus Surge

S27 E43 Length 56:33 Premiere Date 12/07/20

COVID-19's Impact on Kentucky's Health Care System

S27 E42 Length 56:34 Premiere Date 11/23/20

Understanding the Grand Jury System

S27 E41 Length 56:33 Premiere Date 11/16/20

Analyzing the 2020 Election and State Politics

S27 E40 Length 56:33 Premiere Date 11/09/20

2020 Election Eve Preview

S27 E39 Length 56:34 Premiere Date 11/02/20

Kentucky's U.S. Senate Race

S27 E38 Length 56:33 Premiere Date 10/26/20

Legislative Leaders Preview the 2020 General Election

S27 E37 Length 56:33 Premiere Date 10/19/20

Issues Affecting Kentucky's 4th Congressional District

S27 E36 Length 26:33 Premiere Date 10/12/20

Issues Affecting Kentucky's 3rd Congressional District

S27 E35 Length 26:31 Premiere Date 10/05/20

Previewing the 2020 General Election

S27 E34 Length 56:34 Premiere Date 09/28/20

Special Education, Student Mental Health and COVID-19

S27 E33 Length 56:33 Premiere Date 09/21/20

Challenges and Benefits of Remote Learning in Kentucky

S27 E32 Length 56:33 Premiere Date 09/14/20

The Impact of COVID-19 on Kentucky's Tourism Industry

S27 E31 Length 56:36 Premiere Date 08/03/20

COVID-19's Impact on Higher Education in Kentucky

S27 E30 Length 56:35 Premiere Date 07/27/20

Reopening Kentucky's Schools

S27 E29 Length 56:36 Premiere Date 07/20/20

Racial Disparities in K-12 Public Education

S27 E28 Length 56:27 Premiere Date 07/13/20

Police Reform Issues

S27 E27 Length 56:36 Premiere Date 06/29/20

Previewing the 2020 Primary Election

S27 E26 Length 56:33 Premiere Date 06/22/20

Kentucky Tonight: State of Unrest

S27 E25 Length 56:33 Premiere Date 06/15/20

2020 Primary Election Candidates, Part Four

S27 E24 Length 56:33 Premiere Date 06/08/20

2020 Primary Election Candidates, Part Three

S27 E22 Length 56:33 Premiere Date 06/01/20

2020 Primary Election Candidates, Part Two

S27 E21 Length 56:33 Premiere Date 06/01/20

2020 Primary Election Candidates, Part One

S27 E20 Length 56:33 Premiere Date 05/27/20

Reopening Rules for Restaurants and Retail

S27 E19 Length 56:33 Premiere Date 05/18/20

Debating Steps to Restart Kentucky's Economy

S27 E18 Length 56:33 Premiere Date 05/11/20

COVID-19's Impact on Primary Voting and Local Governments

S27 E17 Length 56:34 Premiere Date 05/04/20

Reopening Kentucky's Economy

S27 E16 Length 56:36 Premiere Date 04/27/20

Wrapping Up the General Assembly and a COVID-19 Update

S27 E14 Length 56:36 Premiere Date 04/13/20

Health, Legal and Voting Issues During the COVID-19 Outbreak

S27 E12 Length 57:23 Premiere Date 03/30/20

Kentucky's Response to the COVID-19 Pandemic

S27 E11 Length 58:03 Premiere Date 03/23/20

Finding Agreement on State Budget Issues

S27 E10 Length 56:34 Premiere Date 03/16/20

Election and Voting Legislation

S27 E9 Length 56:33 Premiere Date 03/09/20

State Budget

S27 E8 Length 56:36 Premiere Date 02/24/20

Debating State Budget Priorities

S27 E7 Length 56:34 Premiere Date 02/17/20

Medical Marijuana

S27 E6 Length 56:33 Premiere Date 02/10/20

Sports Betting Legislation

S27 E5 Length 56:36 Premiere Date 02/03/20

2020 Kentucky General Assembly

S27 E2 Length 56:37 Premiere Date 01/13/20

2020 Kentucky General Assembly

S27 E1 Length 56:34 Premiere Date 01/06/20

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Early Childhood Education - S30 E42

Renee Shaw and guests discuss early childhood education. Scheduled guests: State Senator Danny Carroll (R-Benton), chair of the Senate Families and Children Committee and sponsor of the Horizons Act, SB 203, that addresses the child-care industry needs in Kentucky; State Senator Cassie Chambers Armstrong (D-Louisville), member of the Senate Families and Children Committee; Sarah Vanover, Ed.D., author of America's Child-Care Crisis: Rethinking an Essential Business, and policy and research director for Kentucky Youth Advocates; Kate Shanks, vice president of public affairs at the Kentucky Chamber of Commerce; Brigitte Blom, president & CEO of the Prichard Committee for Academic Excellence; and Andrew McNeill, president of Kentucky Forum for Rights, Economics & Education (KYFREE). A 2024 KET production.

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Abortion Legislation - S30 E41

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School Choice & Education Issues - S30 E40

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The State Budget - S30 E39

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Diversity, Equity and Inclusion (DEI) at Kentucky Colleges & Universities - S30 E38

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Safer Kentucky Act - S30 E37

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