With COVID-19 cases increasing exponentially in November, Gov. Andy Beshear ordered public and private schools in the commonwealth to close to in-person instruction starting the Monday before Thanksgiving.
Beshear’s order renewed debate over the extent of a governor’s executive powers during an emergency and whether it’s better to keep children in the classroom or shutter schools to limit the spread of the virus. Educators say staying open creates health concerns for students and staff, but closing schools can endanger student academic performance, social development, and mental health.
“There’s no risk-free approach,” says Union County Public Schools Superintendent Patricia Sheffer. “We know going into this sometimes it’s a lose-lose situation, but we have to make every decision based on what’s best for our students.”
Sheffer says all superintendents have to rely on the information they have at the time and consult with local and state officials. Even then, there are no right or wrong answers, says Kentucky Association of School Superintendents Executive Director Jim Flynn.
“In the pandemic, it has been just one catch-22 after another,” he says. “No matter what decision they make, they’re going to have some people very upset with it.”
State Attorney General Daniel Cameron joined Danville Christian Academy in a lawsuit challenging Beshear’s order, saying it violates constitutional protections of religious freedom. Some parents and state lawmakers have also criticized the governor’s action.
State Sen. Max Wise (R-Campbellsville), who is chair of the Senate Education Committee, says Beshear, a Democrat, should have consulted with legislative leaders before issuing the order.
“I think it would’ve been better... for all of Kentucky if there had been some better communication lines open,” says Wise. “We want to be asked for our opinion because we’re hearing from our constituents, we’re hearing from families that are suffering.”
In-Person, Virtual or Hybrid Learning
At the beginning of the school year, superintendents could decide whether their schools would be open to students, use virtual learning, or organize some combination of the two. Sheffer says her Union County schools employed a hybrid model since the fall semester started in mid-September. About 30 percent of families opted for virtual instruction. The other 70 percent of students were split into to two groups who alternated between in-person and virtual instruction so that no more than 35 percent of students were physically present in a classroom at any given time. Students attending in-person had daily temperature checks, had to be masked at all times, and were expected to follow social distancing and hand washing protocols.
“We can control more of that when the students are here with us versus when they’re out in the community,” says Sheffer.
When schools are closed for extended periods, that puts more pressure on families who may not have the time or resources to monitor a child’s activities during the day. Eric Kennedy, director of advocacy for the Kentucky School Boards Association, says that’s especially true for students who lack a stable home environment or live with a single parent or an extended family member.
“We’re seeing more and more kids that are just having to be drug all over creation, sometimes with whoever can watch them at a given day,” says Kennedy. “We are afraid that that will actually drive more infection among young people.”
Federal health officials, including Dr. Anthony Fauci of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases, have advised keeping schools open as much as possible. Kentucky Education Commissioner Jason Glass says schools that had in-person instruction did a good job of implementing and enforcing mitigation strategies. He says the challenge has been the high rates of community transmission present across the state.
That resulted in thousands of students and staff being quarantined not because they were COVID-positive, but because they were exposed to someone who was. But he says data from around the world seems to indicate that even in areas of high community spread, schools can safely continue in-person instruction.
“That’s encouraging news. It gives us hope that in January… that we’ll be able to reopen schools in some form,” says Glass. “But that’s not a risk-free proposition. We also know that there are places around the world and here in the United States that have remained open where we have seen school-based transmissions.”
The Views of Teachers
Rowan County special education teacher Allison Slone says she hears from many educators in her Kentucky Teachers in the Know Facebook group who support Beshear’s order to temporarily close schools.
“They’re scared,” says Slone. “They’re worried about the safety of being in person in schools, and they’re worried about the guidelines being followed or not followed in their districts.”
Resources have also been a challenge. She says schools are running out of personal protective equipment and staffing has been stretched thin because of quarantines.
“We have to have people in our buildings and adults to run those classrooms,” says Slone. “When they’re not there, you have to combine those classrooms, which means that the social distancing isn’t as possible.”
Slone says teachers understand that virtual learning isn’t ideal, but they contend it may be necessary sometimes. Even hybrid models aren’t perfect, says Slone, because that results in more work for teachers and more confusion among students who alternate between in-person and online instruction. She says teachers who work from home feel isolated, while those in the classroom feel unsafe, and all of them feel the sting of public criticism.
“If you read the comments on social media… it’s always the teachers are lazy, they just want to be home, they don’t want to be working,” says Slone. “I promise you, we are working harder than we’ve ever worked in our life, and it is morning till bedtime.”
Glass acknowledges that many support services designed to help teachers navigate challenges like these have been reduced or eliminated in recent years because of state budget cuts. That’s left local districts to decide whether to find the funds to continue those services.
“So what you see is a lot of variability,” says Glass. “Some places are really good at this, they provide all the supports for new teachers and for more experienced teachers that they need. Other places it’s more spotty.”
Challenges for Parents
Frustrations over the uncertainty surrounding in-person classes and concerns about the quality of virtual learning have led some parents to opt for home-schooling their children.
Madison County veterinarian Kevin Finn says his three kids, ages five, nine and 13, have struggled with online instruction and fallen behind academically. He says his oldest was a 4.0 student last year, but is now getting Fs. So Finn pulled his children from traditional instruction and started home schooling them.
“It’s been a huge stress relief for us,” says Finn.
Finn found home school curricula that he says are specifically designed for online use, which he contends works much better than classroom curricula that Kentucky teachers have tried to adapt to virtual delivery. While he thinks his children are now learning better, he says they still lack good social interactions.
“The one thing that doesn’t seem to be addressed at all is the social and mental health,” he says. “That is very much as important if not more important than physical health.”
Finn says he thinks Gov. Beshear has failed to follow the science in making his decision to close schools. He argues that children do better in a school setting where they can engage with their peers. Closing schools, he contends, not only hurts children but the overall quality of public instruction in the commonwealth.
“We know that we’re already in the bottom half of the country, and having [schools] closed certainly isn’t going to help us improve upon that statistic,” he says.
Finn says he will continue to home school his children through the end of this school year and then decide whether to re-enroll them in Madison County schools for the next academic year.
As the father of four children, Sen. Wise says he understands that parents are exhausted. He says he also understands the frustrations that many people have trying to understand why stores and movie theaters can be open but schools are closed.
“We’ve been consistently inconsistent... on the decision making of what should be open and what should not be open,” says Wise.
Union County School Superintendent Sheffer says she understands that parents need to decide what’s best for their children.
“There are times that students need to be at home… and then there are times that we know students need to be in school,” says Sheffer. “We want to be open for those students who need to be here, and we want to offer the virtual option for those students who need to be at home.”
Although some parents have opted to home school their children during the pandemic, Commissioner Glass says he’s not worried about a mass exodus from the state’s public schools.
“We shouldn’t infer too much about what’s happening right now to what may be happening in the next school year,” says Glass. “This is an unprecedented, at least in our lifetimes, experience.”
Looking Ahead to 2021
Beshear’s current order says elementary schools not in red zone counties can reopen this week. Middle and high schools not in red zones can reopen on Jan. 4. But the governor told reporters on Monday that he is exploring options to allow schools to do in-person instruction regardless of their county’s color code. Commissioner Glass says his office has consulted with the governor on reopening options, but he says the final decision will be up to Beshear.
“Whatever course that is, it’s going to be a choice among some really tough options” says Glass. “Continuing virtually is not a good option, trying to bring everyone back is not a good option... Any of our choices have significant downsides.”
Wise says he initially supported the red-zone classifications. But he says those designations may have outlived their usefulness given what public health officials have learned about school-based spread since the start of the pandemic. Without changes to the color-coding system, he fears some counties may not get out of red zone status for many months.
Flynn says districts should be able use additional metrics such as local hospitalizations and intensive care capacity as well as local contact tracing data to determine when to reopen.
“We need to look carefully at all those different datasets to make a more informed decision moving forward,” says Flynn
While those debates continue, education and public health officials will also need to decide how to distribute COVID vaccines to teachers and students. Glass says they will have to prioritize which districts and what personnel get vaccinated first. He also says schools can require staff to be vaccinated but with exemptions for medical conditions or religious reasons.
As for students, Glass says there are no plans to vaccinate children yet, but he says those decisions may be coming in the future. Wise says he’s already hearing from parents who do not want their children to be vaccinated.
Whatever happens with vaccines and reopening plans, Wise says he hopes people will extend grace to their fellow Kentuckians during these challenging times. Union County Superintendent Sheffer says she also hopes educators can see the changes brought on by the pandemic as an opportunity.
“This is a new normal,” says Sheffer. “Let’s celebrate that and let’s be open to some ideas and innovation that might come out of this.”