The Superintendents’ Advisory Council met virtually on June 22 to discuss considerations for how Kentucky’s schools could potentially reopen in the fall.
During its virtual meeting on June 22, SAC met with Interim Education Commissioner Kevin Brown and several superintendents from across the state in order to discuss updates from the Department of Public Health on how schools can reopen safely in the fall. The council discussed potential policies and procedures that superintendents could choose to implement for wearing masks and contact tracing, among other things.
Brown said that Gov. Andy Beshear plans to release more detailed health guidelines for school districts during his public media briefing scheduled for 4 p.m. on June 24. However, SAC’s meeting on June 22 provided a glimpse into what a potential fall reopening could look like for school districts throughout the state.
As Brown opened the meeting, he said that he recognizes there are a lot of concerns and questions from both educators and parents regarding what a potential school reopening could look in the fall and concerns regarding the prevention of COVID-19 (novel coronavirus) in general.
“I think this is certainly understandable,” Brown said. “Our goal here is to work with our other partner agencies across the state and state government and working with you to provide you with the support you need to reopen school safely, and to also do it in a way that is responsive to the needs of your communities.”
During the meeting, state health and education officials addressed one of the main concerns that superintendents have expressed while planning for a potential reopening: social distancing and the requirement of wearing masks. Those at the meeting discussed that it would be difficult for students to socially distance in a classroom setting, and they said that students will most likely be required to wear masks during the school day.
Dr. Connie White, Deputy Commissioner for Clinical Affairs, said that being required to wear a mask is similar to students being required to be vaccinated and have their immunizations updated before coming to school. As the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) and other health experts have researched the virus, she said, the public has learned more about the fact that wearing a mask is one of the best ways to keep children safe at school.
“We don’t let kids come to school if they’re not immunized,” White said. “Why? Because if they become sick, they will infect other children. We don’t want children to have — and, in turn, let their families have— any infectious diseases, so I think the mask fits right in there. … I think if we view the mask as being the closest thing to an immunization that we have right now, the closest technique we have to stopping the spread, it is the one thing that we can do.”
Brown mentioned that the mask requirement would most likely be in effect for when students are leaving their classrooms and when they are less than six feet apart, and the masks would then come down and off of the face when the students are stationary and more than six feet apart.
Brown said that wearing a mask has become a divisive issue for some people in the state because they do not view it as an important health requirement, even though it has been universally recommended by the World Health Organization, CDC and state and local health officials as being one of the best methods to prevent against spread of the virus. Other methods include social distancing and hand washing.
“The problem we’re having right now is … we don’t have societal expectations of wearing masks, unfortunately, and it’s, to some degree, becoming a divisive issue for our communities,” Brown said. “That is really placing school leaders in a conundrum, when they know that many, if not most, of everything they enforce in their schools are also confirmed by our society as being important and behaviors that are expected, yet we know that we have a situation where people are questioning the use of a mask.”
Todd Allen, with KDE’s Office of Legal Services, discussed the issue of liability exposure that schools and districts should consider as they plan to implement a policy of wearing masks upon their districts reopening in the fall.
“As the superintendents and district leadership develop that policy, they have some level of discretion involved, and it should be very reasonable in nature,” Allen said. “Obviously, we don’t want to create a situation where it’s just being ignored and students are not wearing masks or following appropriate social distancing. At the same time, we wouldn’t force a mask on any student.”
Allen recommended that districts develop a policy that works the best for the superintendents’ respective districts and their districts’ needs, and he encouraged superintendents to work with their principals and teachers in order to implement their policies effectively.
“Unfortunately, I can’t tell you what your liability consideration would be in that situation, but what I can tell you is that you should speak to your local board council and you should develop locally some reasonable guidelines that you and your staff will implement, in the situation where you may have a portion of your student population not wearing masks,” Allen said.
Beshear and his administration, as well as many other state leaders across the country, have increased calls to continue contact tracing as a means to prevent the spread of the virus. For Kentucky, state education and health officials have suggested having schools create bus manifests and classroom and cafeteria seating charts to help with contact tracing if a student or teacher is diagnosed with COVID-19.
Health departments have used contact tracing for decades to isolate people exposed to other diseases. Health workers ask the infected who they have been in frequent contact with and seek to quarantine those people.
White said that by schools increasing their monitoring of how students interact with one another, it would help the local health departments when a student or teacher is diagnosed with COVID-19 because then health workers would be able to isolate and quarantine those who may have come into contact and been exposed to the virus. She said, though, that she does not think school officials should use security cameras or other devices to monitor students.
“If you know little Connie has first period at this class, then second period and then recess, or however that works, that will help contact tracers not bring in people who don’t need to be brought into this,” White said. “Only focus on those people that little Connie truly could have infected and get them out of the mix so that they don’t infect any others.”
White compared making the decision to close a school due to COVID-19 to deciding whether or not to close a school based on a large number of flu cases. She said that schools will not be responsible for identifying cases but do need to keep careful documentation of student movement and contacts.
“You as the school system do not have a responsibility to do the contact tracing,” White said. “That is a public health responsibility. The more that you can help the contact tracer understand the whereabouts and the contacts that the child has, the crisper that evaluation can be and the more targeted it can be so you’re not involving a whole bunch of people that don’t need to be involved and putting your school at any chance of having to close down large numbers of your students.”
Brown said that he understood the frustration that, he said, some superintendents may feel while planning a possible reopening for schools. As the state will release more guidance for schools on June 24 during Beshear’s media briefing, he said, KDE will continue to work with superintendents and district officials in order to help them navigate how to safely and effectively reopen their schools.
“I also understand that there is frustration out there,” Brown said. “I understand that there are questions we still do not yet have answers for or maybe some questions we have answered but we have not done a good job on my end communicating those to you. We’re going to redouble our efforts this week and move forward to make sure we have that communication to you.”
The next Superintendents’ Advisory Council meeting is scheduled for July 20.
Gov. Andy Beshear plans to release health reopening guidelines for schools during his media briefing at 4 p.m. on Wednesday, June 24. To tune in, visit the “Gov. Andy Beshear” Facebook page. For more information about Kentucky’s COVID-19 information, visit, www.kycovid19.ky.gov.