State lawmakers working in a special session on a pandemic relief bill for public schools are struggling to build consensus on how much flexibility districts should have in moving to remote learning.
Republican leaders in both chambers have moved bills through committees that give districts 20 remote learning days, in addition to the 10 non-traditional instruction days they already have. The bills would also end the statewide mask mandate for schools and childcare centers, create a “test-to-stay” strategy and make it easier to hire substitute teachers.
Under the provision, districts could use 20 days to send a school, a group of students or a class into remote instruction—but not the entire district.
Democrats, and some Republicans, worry 20 days won’t be enough.
Fayette County Republican Rep. Killian Timoney said 20 days may be sufficient for smaller districts, “but it doesn’t really help larger districts,” he said, during the first meeting Wednesday of the House education committee.
Timoney also expressed dismay that the legislation would end the statewide mask mandates for schools without giving districts guidance on when to instate their own mandates. Some superintendents have been asking for a matrix that would guide masking decisions based on public health data, such as COVID-19 infection rates.
“I was under the impression that there was going to be a matrix involved, and it needs to be in here,” Timoney said. “Because that’s going to provide the cover that our districts are going to need in order to do what’s right for our kids,” he said.
Rep. Tina Bojanowski, a Louisville Democrat and teacher for Jefferson County Public Schools also raised concerns about how districts with more than 100 school buildings would split 20 remote learning days.
“In districts such as Jefferson County Public Schools, with 155 buildings, they could target a third-grade class in Watterson Elementary school, and that would count as one day for the entire district,” she noted.
Both Bojanowski and Timoney, also an educator, “passed” during the first vote on the measure Wednesday, along with Morehead Republican Rep. Richard White. The remaining Democrats and three Republicans voted against the measure, and it failed to get the 12 votes committee vice chair Rep. Steve Riley said were needed.
However, the same measure passed hours later, when Republican leaders called another meeting after several opponents of the measure had left for the day.
“I’m a little disappointed in the leadership here,” Louisville Democratic Rep. Jeffery Donohue said. “It just goes to show how low we’ll go…go any lower and I’ll put a pitchfork in your hand.”
The measure picked up five more yes votes, including from Bojanowski and Timoney, who each said they wanted to get the measure out of committee and move forward.
“There’s too many important things in this bill that we need to get across the finish line,” Timoney said. “I do also believe there is work—there is a lot of work we need to do before we put this onto the floor.”
The senate education committee passed a nearly identical measure earlier in the day. It was the second time the senate committee considered the bill. They passed a slightly different version of the legislation Tuesday but leaders sent it back to committee over concerns some provisions conflicted with federal tax code. Senators made the necessary adjustments and also removed provisions meant to encourage school districts to promote vaccination.
Lawmakers have offered numerous amendments on both proposals. Some Democrats want provisions to make hybrid learning models possible for districts, a request also made by Kentucky Education Commissioner Jason Glass.
Meanwhile conservative Republicans in the senate have offered amendments to prevent school districts from imposing their own mask mandates.
Lawmakers are trying to pass a final version of the bill by the end of the week.