Education

The coronavirus will undoubtedly mean the 2020-2021 school year will look different from any other. There are still many unanswered questions as state officials, school districts and families try to prepare, some even as basic as when school will start. Here is what we do know about what’s on the table for the school year.

A spokesperson for the Kentucky Department of Education said the state is planning to release a guidance document on reopening schools in the next two weeks.

Start Date

The Kentucky Department of Education (KDE) is telling districts to be prepared for three possible start-dates: an early one in July, a traditional start in August, and a late start in late September or early October. Districts have to submit a proposed calendar to KDE by July 31. State education officials say they haven’t heard from any districts planning for an early start date, and as of June, most districts were still planning for a traditional start date.

A May 15 guidance document suggests Gov. Andy Beshear could issue a recommendation on a start date, based on information from the Kentucky Department of Public Health.

State education officials are also recommending that local school districts work with local health departments to consider each community’s unique situation on deciding when to begin school. So start dates could vary by district.

Social Distancing And Rotating School Days

The CDC recommendations around social distancing will potentially be the most challenging guidelines for districts to follow in schools where upwards of 30 desks can be crammed into a classroom. KDE has released several possible plans to reduce the number of students and teachers in the building at a time. Districts can choose the model they want to use based on their specific community needs, according to KDE.

Strategy 1: Scheduled Rotation

Students are divided into groups that alternate weeks, days or times of day when they are in school. As an example, a school could divide students into two groups. One group would attend school in person for week one, while the second group does remote learning. In week two, the second group would attend in person while the first group does remote learning. KDE officials say this would give schools an opportunity to deep-clean over the weekends in between groups of students.

On remote learning days, KDE suggests students could work on project-based learning assignments, or receive instruction through videos to maintain learning.

KDE says schools could also implement this model with a morning group and afternoon group rotation, or a rotation based on days of the week.

The advantage of this strategy, according to KDE officials, is that it allows more students to have in-person time with teachers than other strategies.

This model has been called a “logistics nightmare” by Jefferson County Public Schools (JCPS) Superintendent Marty Pollio, who worries about the challenges for parents in planning around a rotating schedule.

Strategy 2: Synchronous Opt-in Hybrid

In this model, some students attend school in person, while other students use remote learning. KDE Chief Technology Officer Marty Park said schools should be intentional about how they identify students for in-person attendance, prioritizing students who lack internet access, have additional resource needs, or need customized or specialized equipment.

Schools could assign a different teacher or set of teachers to provide instruction to students learning remotely. This may be ideal for teachers who are at higher health risk, according to Park.

In a June 9 KDE webinar, Park said students learning remotely wouldn’t just be looking at a live feed of the classroom. Instead teachers would be providing instruction through “planned digital interactions.” For example, new content could be introduced through a video for students to watch on their own time. Teachers would then followed up later with a planned web conference for discussion.

“We don’t see a scenario or best practice where there is a camera always on, and our students at home or off campus are sitting in front of a screen all day long,” Park said.

Strategy 3: Combination

This strategy is a combination of the first two strategies. Students would be divided into groups to alternate which days or weeks they attend in-person classes. On the days they are remote, students would participate in “planned digital interactions,” like web conferences with their class.

KDE officials say this model would require all students to have a device and internet access.

Strategy 4: Online and Virtual School

Under this strategy, courses are offered totally online. Park said many districts are already offering online courses, which can be used as a model, or expanded on. For example, many students already take AP courses online, as well as credit recovery courses. Districts who successfully used nontraditional instruction (NTI) during the end of the 2019-2020 school year may also use NTI as a model. The KDE guidance says online courses should be reserved for students in grades 6-12.

Masks And Hygiene

State public health officials are recommending schools require adults and students age five and older to wear a mask, unless wearing one would present a medical issue, or if they can’t wear one because of a developmental challenge.

“Particularly since children frequently have no symptoms, and spread the infection so easily, if they are wearing a mask it helps keep the infection to them and keeps it away from others,” Kentucky Public Health Commissioner Steven Stack said in a May 26 KDE webinar.

Kentucky state health officials say parents should be responsible for providing a mask, which can be a cloth mask, but that schools should keep masks available.

“Schools and buses of course should keep masks on hand because obviously some children are going to show up without the mask,” KDPH’s Emily Messerli said in a later webinar.

Messerli said parents should have at least five masks, so that they can send their child to school each day with a clean one.

State health officials say extra hand-washing and sanitation of surfaces will also need to be part of schools’ plans to reopen.

Schools will be expected to assist local health departments in contract tracing when students or staff test positive for the coronavirus.

Meal Service

State health officials say meals should be eaten in the classroom, instead of the cafeteria, unless the cafeteria has assigned seats, with students kept six feet apart, and tables sanitized in between groups of students.

“If you make a middle school and a high school cafeteria a free-for-all, it’s very hard to do contact tracing,” KDPH’s Emily Messerli told superintendents on a June 2 webinar. “Whereas if they’re eating in the classroom, you know exactly who has been in the classroom with them.”

The ideal scenario for food service, according to state health officials, would be having boxed individual lunches delivered to each classroom. However, that guidance is evolving, as state education officials are concerned about the limited options for food that could be served in boxes.

Intermittent Closures

The state has told schools they need to prepare for intermittent closures throughout the school year, due to possible outbreaks of coronavirus. Guidance from KDE says schools should have different plans for short closures of 1-3 days, mid-term closures of up to 10 days, and longer closures.

Kentucky education officials say schools should make sure they are ready to move into a closure at a moment’s notice. If students have school-issued computers or tablets, they should take them home each day, along with text books and other instructional materials they might need in a closure.

Districts also need to be prepared to enter NTI, and be ready to provide food service to students on free or reduced-priced lunch.

Sports

The Kentucky High School Athletic Association (KHSAA) and the governor’s office allowed sports teams to being summer training on June 15, along social distancing guidelines. Guidance varies widely, depending on the sport or activity. Indoor, high-touch sports like basketball or wrestling have the highest risk, and the most restrictions. Outdoor low-touch sports, such as track and field have the lowest risk, and are less impacted.

For all sports, schools cannot convene more than 10 students at a time, and coaches and other adults must wear masks. No competition is allowed for any sport until June 29.

Low-touch sports, including tennis, baseball and track and field can begin competition on June 29, under certain protocols. But high-touch sports like football and basketball cannot happen for the foreseeable future.

“Beyond that, no one can answer questions right now about what competition might look like this summer and into the fall. There’s no one that has that crystal ball on it now,” KHSAA commissioner Julian Tackett said in a June 2 webinar.

Tackett said the decision on whether to allow sports and how will be up to local school board and superintendents.

“We are operating under the premise that we are going to be able to have a fall season. You might be operating under the premise that your school won’t, and that’s fine,” Tackett told Kentucky superintendents.

Jess Clark is WFPL's Education and Learning Reporter.