State education leaders detail outlook of 2020-2021 school year and funding issues

As conversations about reopening Kentucky’s public schools continue across the state, legislators heard from several education groups preparing for the months ahead at the Interim Joint Committee on Education meeting on Tuesday.

Eric Kennedy, Director of Governmental Relations for the Kentucky School Boards Association, said that school boards across the state are trying to estimate how many students will physically return to schools and how many students will ask for some form of a distance learning.  Questions remain about the reopening guidelines, including whether or not districts can require a certain method of learning.

Kennedy emphasized that his organization believes the best instruction for students is in-person, adding that it must be done as safely as possible.

School boards are also trying to anticipate potential staff issues. Kennedy said some educators are indicating that they are close to retirement and may go ahead and retire. Others are asking their district for a year off. Before COVID-19, there was already a critical shortage of bus drivers, so transportation could arise as a possible issue. Local boards continue to assess what all their needs will be, according to Kennedy.

Kennedy also expressed support for reasonable liability protections in any federal relief package from Congress, which has been referenced by Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell. McConnell has repeatedly voiced a desire to include liability protection for schools and businesses should the Senate consider any additional COVID-19 relief bills.

Dr. Jim Flynn, Executive Director of the Kentucky Association of School Superintendents, emphasized the need for flexibility and funding. According to Flynn, the funding received from the federal CARES Act has largely been spent on preparations to reopening, who cited conversations with various superintendents across the state. He believes school districts will need additional relief this coming school year when it comes to flexibility with NTI days and funding. Additionally, he asked for some flexibility on the calendar with the 170-day requirement, which Flynn said may need to be loosened.

The Kentucky Department of Education (KDE) has created a plan and is submitting a waiver that would allow districts to decide how to provide instruction without first worrying about state funding. This will be accomplished, according to KDE, by decoupling traditional funding based on students in attendance and shifting to a student participation model.

As for what will be counted as participation, KDE pointed to one-on-one video chats or phone calls between student and teacher, group chats with teacher and the whole class or groups of students within a class, student time spent on learning management systems such as Google Classroom completing assignments, and/or submission of instructional packets.

At the end of the 2019-2020 school year amid the COVID-19 pandemic closure, districts collected and submitted weekly district participation information to KDE and similar actions will be required in the next school year.

When asked about whether or not mask requirements are enforceable, Interim Kentucky Education Commissioner Kevin Brown said it will be absolutely necessary for students to wear masks when in a classroom in order to ensure safety. He noted they expect there will be students who want to defy the mask issue, which will be a very difficult classroom obstacle, but teachers will have to be creative and called on communities to help educate students about the need for wearing a mask.

Additionally, legislators heard testimony from Kentucky High School Athletics Association Commissioner Julian Tackett, who said he realizes bringing back sports is like walking a tight rope because of the risk of exposure from participation. Tackett also noted school sports is the number one dropout prevention factor in many areas.

Tackett said while what it looks like may change in the coming weeks, they are planning to have school sports in the fall likely done in stages, and they have also considered switching seasons for certain sports.

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