The Kentucky Department for Public Health (DPH) joined Kentucky’s 172 superintendents and leadership from the Kentucky Department of Education (KDE) during a June 2 webcast to provide additional guidance on reopening school buildings in the fall.
Although DPH leaders told superintendents in a May 26 webcast that their plans to reopen their districts should be guided by what is feasible, practical, acceptable and tailored to the needs of each community, superintendents said they are not optimistic about a fall reopening.
One of the biggest points of contention for superintendents was the DPH recommendation that school buses implement social-distancing by allowing no more than one student to a seat.
DPH has updated this guidance and now says that social-distancing does not need to be enforced on school buses if students are wearing masks, are practicing proper hand hygiene and have had their temperature and symptoms checked.
“Bus rides, yes, you’re in a confined space, but it’s time-limited,” said Emily Messerli, immunization branch manager for DPH. “In the classroom, we can’t have students being on top of each other because they’re in the classroom for seven-to-eight hours. The bus ride is less time so there is less exposure.”
Messerli said families will be expected to provide a mask for students. However, school buses should keep masks on hand in case students show up without one. Even though guidance on school buses has been loosened to ensure students can be transported to school, DPH staff said the guidelines regarding masks and social-distancing in the school building are still in place.
Interim Education Commissioner Kevin C. Brown said superintendents have reached out to him about the cultural issue regarding masks. These superintendents, Brown said, felt that families in some communities will not encourage their children to wear masks to school.
“This is your opportunity to set the best practices for the healthiest people in your community – your students and your staff,” said DPH Deputy Commissioner Dr. Connie White. “I think you have expectations. I think you have preferred standards. You’re not going to expel a kid for not wearing a mask, but I think if enough of them wear masks, it’s going to be kind of odd for the kid who’s not wearing a mask.”
White said that DPH will not send “six-feet police” or “mask police” to ensure that students and staff are practicing the guidelines, but added that people in the district will be healthier the more the comply with the guidelines.
Superintendents provided innovative ideas throughout the webcast — one of which being that schools use plexiglass as a barrier between students in the classroom. DPH said they would look into the idea, but said that if it were to be allowed, schools would need to make sure the barriers are thoroughly cleaned between classes as a way to mitigate any potential transmission of COVID-19.
Another idea proposed by superintendents would be to use the cafeteria for lunches. In a lot of schools, the cafeteria is the largest room in the school so it would be easier to spread out students. Previous guidance from DPH stated that lunch would need to be eaten in the classroom.
DPH staff said this is an idea that could work and they would look into it. Just like plexiglass, sanitation would be key. Custodial crews would have to disinfect tabletops after each student ate.
Messerli said that one reason for the guidance of eating in the classroom was to allow for more effective contact tracing. If students were permitted to eat in the cafeteria, they would need to have assigned seating and if there were ever a change in seating, it would need to be documented by the school.
DPH is working on a guidance document with the hope of it being released June 4.
KHSAA’s next steps for sports
Kentucky High School Athletic Association (KHSAA) Commissioner Julian Tackett joined the webcast to provide an overview of guidance from the governor for high school athletics.
Beginning June 1 and extending through June 14, high school coaches will be allowed to meet with their players in groups of no more than 10. These meetings will have to take place with the consent of superintendents through the local school board. Districts should consult with their local health departments before making any decisions.
“Every situation is a little bit different and unfortunately, we’re used to operating from a standpoint of everybody being identical,” said Tackett. “Well, what we’re finding is everyone being treated similarly may not result in everyone being identical because your local health department … may feel differently than the next district.”
Workouts for high-contact sports and practices for low-contact sports can begin June 15-28. Both football and basketball have been identified as high-contact sports so no sport-affiliated equipment can be used for those workouts.
Gov. Andy Beshear previously announced that gyms would open on June 1 and, according to Tackett, some Kentucky basketball coaches assumed that meant they could resume activities with their teams. Beshear’s office later changed the wording from gyms to fitness centers when the final guidance for June 1 was issued and as of June 2, there is no announced date for when basketball or other high-contact sports can resume.
June 29 is when low-contact sports can resume competition. This does not include school against school competition.
“Beyond (June 29), no one can answer questions right now,” said Tackett. “We are operating under the premise that we are going to be able to have a fall season. You may be operating under the premise that your school won’t. That’s fine. … We really think that you need to first focus on opening school without the distraction of sports.”