Education

A Kentucky House bill requiring school districts to offer at least two days a week of in-person learning by March 29 has cleared the state Senate. 

The bill is mostly aimed at Jefferson County Public Schools, which has been fully virtual since last March, when buildings closed due to the coronavirus pandemic. 

Anticipating passage of the bill by both chambers, the Jefferson County Board of Education voted 4-3 last week to begin a phased reopening with a hybrid learning schedule, starting March 17. 

The bill passed 28-8 and now heads back to the House for consideration of a few changes made by the Senate.

JCPS is among three districts still fully remote because of the pandemic. Some Jefferson County school board members are concerned the reopening could increase community spread of COVID-19. While rates of infection are declining in Jefferson County, the CDC still considers it a “high-transmission area.” 

But the district of 92,000 students has been facing mounting pressure from the state and some parent groups to offer in-person instruction. Gov. Andy Beshear signed an executive order recommending districts offer in-person instruction by March 1, noting he prioritized K-12 staff vaccinations. 

Whitley County Republican Rep. Regina Huff, the bill’s cosponsor, told a Senate committee Wednesday she thought discussions districts were having about remaining virtual the rest of the year were “unacceptable.”

“I felt those students needed face-to-face contact,” she said.

Some parent groups don’t think Huff’s bill goes far enough and say lawmakers should require JCPS to offer five days a week in person. The district originally planned to offer five days a week to elementary school students, but just before the vote, the board scaled it back to a two-day hybrid model over concerns some schools would not be able to maintain a safe distance between students.

Steve Ullum leads the group Let Them Learn in JCPS, a pro-school-opening Facebook group with around 1,800 members. He told the Senate committee his child is attending a YMCA day camp five days a week in person. 

“The only difference is instead of a vaccinated teacher in the front of the classroom, it is an unvaccinated babysitter,” he said.

Other opponents of the bill say it aims to “strip away local control.”

“It just takes that away,” Lexington Democratic Sen. Reginald Thomas told the committee. “Because now we’re telling schools when they must open and how they must open.”

Thomas was skeptical of arguments made by some Republicans in committee that a return to in-person learning was needed to address achievement and opportunity gaps among Black and low-income students.

“I’ve consistently argued about what we need to correct achievement gaps, based upon the literature that I’ve read regarding education, but that has seemed to fall on deaf ears,” Thomas said. “To bring our kids back to school on March 29 is not going to eliminate any achievement gaps, I can assure you.” 

If districts do not comply with the measure they could lose state funding.

All 171 Kentucky school districts are now offering in-person instruction or have a plan to start in-person instruction by the end of March. The vast majority of Kentucky districts (131) are planning for four to five days of in-person learning a week, according to the Kentucky School Boards Association. JCPS will be in the minority offering students two days a week. 

 

Jess Clark is WFPL's Education and Learning Reporter.