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State's Principals, Ed. Commissioner Unsure About Return to In-Person Learning

Kentucky’s Commissioner of Education Jason E. Glass met virtually with the Kentucky Department of Education’s (KDE) Principals Advisory Council (PrAC) on Tuesday to seek the council’s opinion on when schools throughout the Commonwealth should return to in-person instruction amid COVID-19.

An executive order signed by Governor Andy Beshear suspended in-person instruction on November 23, but allows elementary schools (Kindergarten through fifth grade) to reopen for in-person learning this week, unless the counties where those schools are located remain in the state's COVID-19 "red zone".

Nearly every county remains in the red zone, meaning an average daily coronavirus case count of 25 or more per 100,000 people. All Northern Kentucky counties are in the red zone.

Middle and high schools cannot return to in-person learning until January 4, per the executive order issued in response to skyrocketing COVID-19 cases in the state.

But with January 4 approaching, Commissioner Glass said that it is imperative that KDE gather feedback from the state's education community before submitting a recommendation to Beshear, who will then ultimately decide whether to let the suspension of in-person instruction expire or continue it further.

“What I’m trying to do is hear from as many groups and individuals as much as I can over these next few days so we are able to provide the governor with a recommendation that is informed by practitioners,” Glass said.

Glass also met with the Commissioner’s Student Advisory Council on Tuesday and will meet with the Teachers Advisory Council on Thursday to seek their feedback.

PrAC member Darla Payne, who serves as the principal at Ockerman Middle School in Boone County, said she would recommend extending the suspension of in-person instruction until at least January 19. Her district already made that decision due to the anticipation of families gathering during the holiday season.

Based on how cases of the virus continue to escalate in Louisville, Shervita West, principal at Brandeis Elementary in Jefferson County, does not believe it is practical to anticipate her district will return to in-person instruction in January.

“An early spring date seems to be more realistic as a recommendation,” West said.

Though she is aware that other areas of the state are not affected by COVID-19 in the same manner as Jefferson County, West thinks a delay in returning until early spring should be mandated statewide.

“We need to maintain consistency as a unit of school systems together,” she said.

When looking at the information provided by national health experts, Jennifer Hutchison, principal at Picadome Elementary in Fayette County, said she has a hard time creating an argument in favor of a return to in-person instruction in January.

“I want to be back in school more than anyone,” she said. “But I have a hard time arguing that that is the safest thing to do for my students and for my staff members.”

Establishing an early spring return date would help alleviate some of the anxiety about what is going to happen with schools and provide clarity on when they will return, Hutchison said. Additionally, she said this would allow teachers the opportunity to focus their time, energy and efforts on continuing to meet the needs of students.

Lisa Perdue, principal of Cumberland County Elementary, agreed with her fellow council members in Jefferson and Fayette County and said she hopes that whatever decision Beshear makes, it comes as another executive order.

The Cumberland County school district is home to a little over 900 students. Being a smaller district, Cumberland County felt pressure to remain open to in-person instruction “at all costs” prior to Beshear’s executive order, Perdue said.

“Before, when we were just under the recommendation, we felt a huge amount of community pressure to continue in-person instruction,” she said. “Even when we didn’t feel it was safe or when our medical professionals in our community didn’t feel like it was safe.”

From a career and technical education (CTE) perspective, Kevin Cook, principal at the Pulaski County Area Technology Center, said he is in favor of districts determining when they return to in-person learning based on data available in their local communities.

“Hopefully, every district is going to do what is safe for their kids and for their staff,” he said.

Cook has been able to provide targeted services to small groups of students based on KDE-issued guidance that details appropriate measures districts should consider when bringing small groups of students into the building. However, he said with students learning virtually, a lot of them are missing out on career opportunities.

“Thinking about it from that perspective and about what we can do safely, the sooner I can get kids back into my CTE world, the better I can prepare them for (life) post-graduation,” he said.

After listening to the variety of opinions, Glass acknowledged the complexity of the decision and said there is no perfect option available for the governor.

“There is no consensus on what to do,” he said. “This is really a difficult thing to process through.”

The PrAC is scheduled to meet again on March 16.

-Staff report

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