With chatter of a special session happening next week, lawmakers are holding committee meetings to examine issues related to the current state of the COVID-19 pandemic. In a meeting of the Interim Joint Committee on Education Wednesday, education officials and lawmakers discussed ensuring Kentucky children are able to safely stay in the classroom while providing districts with options for problems being faced by educators across the state.
When a student is exposed to COVID-19, it impacts their ability to remain in the classroom and also puts those who come in contact with that individual at risk. As a result, there has been a large number of quarantines in school districts across the state. That also impacts the parents of those students in terms of exposure and their ability to go to work.
Some school districts are utilizing a “test to stay” approach where they are testing students for six consecutive days to ensure they remain COVID negative which allows them to stay in class in-person rather than being in quarantine for two weeks.
Green County Superintendent Will Hodges told lawmakers this has seen a 92% success rate in his district and that they are seeing most of the spread of COVID-19 is happening because of household contacts rather than in the schools. He noted his program is at no cost to the school or to parents because it is paid for through their partnership with Cumberland Family Health which gets federal funding for these purposes.
The “test to stay” program is not mandatory, meaning students can simply quarantine because of an exposure if their parent does not want them to participate in the testing. Hodges said 80-90% of parents have chosen to participate. Other districts including Cumberland, Russell and Adair are also utilizing this program.
Meanwhile, in other districts across the state, quarantine is driving issues across the state especially with the quarantine of teachers and other school employees which is closing closures, Kentucky School Board Association Director of Advocacy Eric Kennedy told lawmakers.
Kennedy noted 23 school districts have paused in-person learning already this year and have closed in some way with nine school districts having already used NTI days which causes concerns as districts only have a certain number of days and they may need to be used for different reasons later on.
Kentucky Association of School Superintendents Executive Director Jim Flynn discussed the need for some additional flexibility around those NTI days or other virtual learning options as NTI days shut down an entire district and other options could allow issues to be addressed at a more specific level. He also noted the desire of many superintendents to have some flexibility around funding as well.
Flynn, Kennedy, and Hodges all emphasized the issue of critical workforce shortages. Kennedy said there was already a massive struggle to find staff before the pandemic and the exhaustion of staff due to the current reality is a real threat especially as many districts do not have enough substitutes.
Options for school districts to waive certain statutory restrictions currently in place around substitute teachers to help bring in retired teachers or qualified individuals to step in when a teacher has to quarantine and lift constraints on student teachers and other areas to get more subs into the classroom.
Flynn told lawmakers any CEO wants to have all the tools they need to respond to situations and Kentucky superintendents would like to have as many tools available as possible. He added there are not one size fits all solutions but schools and school leaders need immediate relief which could be provided in a special session and then the state needs to build a long-term framework based on what has been learned throughout the pandemic.
Earlier in the day, lawmakers heard from officials with state and local correctional facilities on problems they are facing in light of COVID-19 and also received an update from Attorney General Daniel Cameron on the recent state Supreme Court decision regarding the Governor’s emergency powers.