The Superintendents’ Advisory Council met virtually on July 6 to discuss the Kentucky Department of Education’s developing guidelines for how school districts can reopen in the fall, shedding light on what parents, guardians, employees and students might expect.

On July 6, KDE released a document titled “COVID-19 Considerations for Reopening Schools: Workplace Health and Safety,” in which they outlined a guide for local school districts to use as they plan their respective fall reopening.

SAC, which is comprised of 25 members, including local superintendents and other education officials, discussed the document during its virtual meeting and gave input to Interim Education Commissioner Kevin Brown about areas that members felt needed improvement.

“This is not a ‘one size fits all’ guide and is based on best practice guidance and information from relevant state and federal agencies,” the document stated. “However, due to the nature of COVID-19, this is ever-evolving information and districts should work closely with their local health departments and other partners to ensure their policies, procedures and protocols align with the current scientific information.”

The document provides an outline on responding to COVID-19, including protocols and guidance on policies for wearing masks, temperature checks and social distancing, as well as student and employee health and wellness.

Wearing masks

Throughout the planning process for how schools will reopen in the fall, the topic of wearing masks has been frequently discussed. According to the recent document from KDE, all students in the first grade and older should wear a cloth face mask unless the student has a medical exemption.

“We do not recommend it for children under the age of kindergarten and down because it may not be developmentally appropriate for them to understand if they’re not wearing it correctly, they may have difficulty breathing and may not have the ability to remove the mask themselves. We want to make those allowances for those students,” said Angela McDonald, with KDE’s Office of Finance and Operations, who presented the document during the meeting.

According to KDE, “the wearing of cloth masks is strongly recommended as they protect individuals if the wearer unknowingly is infectious. Schools will need to consider the mask as a part of school attire and include it in school dress code policy for appropriate governance of decorations, logos, screen prints, etc. Schools should consider positive interventions to work with students who choose not to wear a mask.”

Masks are not recommended for students who have trouble breathing or are unconscious, children under the age of 2, any student who is incapacitated and unable to remove the covering without assistance and any student with underlying medical, developmental, sensory or behavioral health issues that may preclude wearing a mask, according to KDE.

McDonald said that KDE officials have discussed requiring parents to submit a signed document from their medical provider if their child cannot wear a mask, though that has not been made official yet.

Temperature checks

SAC discussed KDE’s requirements for temperature screenings, which McDonald said will be important to implement as schools plan to reopen.

“We definitely want everyone to have a temperature check when arriving on school property, whether that’s at the bus, at the car rider line or if they’re a walking student,” McDonald said.

The KDE recommends that temperature screenings, or temperature checks, be conducted for students and staff entering the building or boarding the bus and as needed. Fever is determined by a temperature of greater than 100.4 degrees Fahrenheit.

“Depending on the level of cases in the community, the local health department may recommend sending students home with a lower temperature,” according to KDE.

Schools are recommended to use non-touch thermometers if possible, and students and staff should wait at least 6 feet apart and temperature stations should be spread out in different locations to prevent individuals from congregating.

“Any time that a student has a temperature of greater than 100.4, then they will need to be either sent back home to their parent in the car line or follow your building protocol as to where they go next,” McDonald said to members of SAC, which includes several local superintendents. “Do they go to the school health room? Do they have a point of contact in that building? It’s very important for you guys to have that in your plan if you’re gonna send those students to be evaluated as to whether they need to go home or not.”

One education official asked KDE officials what they recommended for the protocol to be if a child has a temperature of 100.4 degrees.

“I think that’s an important conversation to have with your local health department,” said Kay Kennedy, with the KDE’s Office of Finance and Operations, who helped present the document during the meeting. “The CDC (Centers for Disease Control and Prevention) will generally say 72 hours, I think, fever free.”

Dr. Connie White, Deputy Commissioner for Clinical Affairs, gave additional input on the question.

“I think what we said in the document was that if a patient was tested for COVID-19 and was positive, there’d be an isolation period, and the local health department or health care provider could tell you what time to return. If the COVID test is negative, I would say again that the healthcare provider would determine when it’s safe for that patient to go back to school.”

She recommended that regular school protocols for students with fevers could also be used if the fever is unrelated to COVID-19. The CDC’s school recommendations for schools include that they recommend schools require students to be without a fever for 72 hours before returning to school.

During the meeting, an attendee asked if districts can require that students be tested for COVID-19 and what the potential protocol could look like for students who refuse to be tested.

“Well, if there were no COVID and it was a heavy flu season and a child was febrile, would you require a flu test before they came back to school?” Dr. Connie White said, also asking a similar question to other members of SAC.

One education official during the meeting said that his district’s policy always required 24 hours without a fever before a child could return to school, but since this virus is new and requires 72 hours without a fever by the CDC, he asked if schools would be able to require 72 hours fever-free before returning to school.

“I think typically it would require 24 hours fever-free, but if 24 hours fever-free isn’t enough for the COVID test and they refuse a COVID test, we would not forcibly give a child a flu test, nor can we forcibly give them a COVID test,” the official said. “24 hours fever-free is what we’ve always been told. It’s what’s in our policy. We have a new virus that requires something different than that so the question is, if a parent understands that they cannot test their child and bring them back in 24 hours, do we have grounds to keep them out of school for 72 hours?”

Dr. Emily Messerli, immunization branch manager for the Kentucky Department for Public Health, said that school officials should recommend that parents get their children tested for the virus.

“One thing you can do to reassure parents is that no individual is to pay for a COVID test,” Dr. Messerli said. “There’s no mandatory out-of-pocket charge to any individual for a COVID test so that should not be a barrier.”

Woodford County Superintendent Scott Hawkins said that the KDE officials should stick to one policy recommendation, either 24 hours or 72 hours, for how long a child must be without a fever because he and other superintendents want a clear policy expectation.

“You could have a fever for any number of reasons and to say that you automatically need to get a COVID test to be able to return to school, especially once we get into flu season. At what point do we draw the line and say, ‘This is gonna be the expectation,’” Hawkins said. “If it’s 72 hours fever-free, then tell us that’s what we need to do, and that’s what we’ll do. If it’s 24 hours fever free, tell us that and that’s what we’ll do. We can’t be going back and forth depending on what season of the year it is. We just need to know what it is that we need to do if a kid has a fever.”

Interim Education Commissioner Kevin Brown said that he and other KDE officials would discuss the need for clearer, more consistent policy expectations on the protocol for if a child has a fever.

Hand washing and social distancing

Regarding hand hygiene, the KDE recommends that students be taught hand hygiene practices, and signs and reminders should be posted throughout buildings. Regular breaks for hand washing and use of hand sanitizer are recommended to be planned throughout the school day. Students should cough or sneeze into a tissue, immediately throw the tissue away and wash or sanitize their hands.

KDE’s document also provides guidance on social distancing.

“Since it is currently believed that COVID-19 is transmitted through respiratory droplets, social distancing (spreading people at minimum 6 feet apart), is a very important strategy to slow the spread of the virus,” according to KDE. “It is encouraged that social distancing be practiced as much as feasible in the school setting.”

The KDE recommends that schools provide markings on floors to determine 6 feet spacing, use assigned entrances and exits for a predetermined group of classrooms, and use self-contained classrooms, if feasible, to limit exposure to a small group of students and staff.

Schools are recommended to have breaks and recess outside and open windows where feasible to help improve ventilation. When students are out of the room, staff are recommended to clean their classrooms, and schools are encouraged to limit non-essential visitors and activities with outside groups and organizations when possible.

Students requiring outside services, like mental health, speech, occupational and physical therapies, will be allowed, but service providers must follow screening protocol and must wear proper PPE.

Regarding employee health and wellness, employees should be screened for common COVID-19 symptoms, including a temperature check. If there are no symptoms or fever, the employee should proceed to work as normal.

Additional information

According to the KDE, employees who exhibit at least one symptom — fever, chills, shortness of breath or difficulty breathing, new cough, new loss of taste or smell or gastrointestinal symptoms — must immediately go home and should notify their health care provider.

Districts are recommended to develop a protocol for how to handle employees who have been exposed to a person with COVID-19 or employees who have tested positive for COVID-19. If a person suspects they may have been exposed to COVID-19, that person should be tested immediately and then begin a quarantine period until test results are available.

Students will need to be health screened, including a temperature check, before entering school, and KDE recommends that parents complete this health assessment of their child before sending them student to school. For students who ride the bus, verification of this health assessment is required for students to board the bus without a temperature screening. If there are no symptoms observed, the student should proceed to school as normal regardless of transportation mode.

Districts are recommended to develop and communicate to families the procedure for daily entry to the school building. The procedure should include information on traffic patterns, start times, which entrances to use and any other details “pertinent to an orderly entrance so temperatures may be scanned.”

If a student shows at least one symptom — fever, chills, shortness of breath or difficulty breathing, new cough, new loss of taste or smell or gastrointestinal symptoms — the student must be isolated immediately until the parent can pick up the child. Parents are then encouraged to notify their health care provider for further guidance and possible testing for COVID-19.

Although the document provides outlines and guidance on many protocols for schools in order to prevent the spread of COVID-19, KDE continues to develop its guidelines for how school districts should reopen.

“As the situation evolves, it is expected that these plans will need to be re-evaluated and adjusted as necessary,” according to KDE.

The next meeting for the Superintendents Advisory Council will be July 20.

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