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As Warren Co. Public Schools students return to classrooms, weary parents wonder: for how long?

Lisa Autry
Lydia Lopez, 8, is taking part in non-traditional instruction at her home in Warren County. Her mother, Jenny Lopez, makes sure she stays on task.

The pandemic has upended our lives in many ways, and perhaps no one knows that better than parents of school age children.

The Omicron variant of the coronavirus is bearing down hard on Kentucky, pushing the state past one million cases of COVID-19. With the most contagious variant yet and a record number of new cases, schools are stressed by high absenteeism among both students and staff.

Many schools have returned to in-person learning this week, but parents fear it will be short-lived.

"I don't know a parent in Warren County right now that's not got somebody sick," said Jenny Lopez during an interview with WKU Public Radio Public.

You might say Lopez has been praying a mother’s prayer.

“Help these kids stay in school, get the learning done, and get this year over," sighed Lopez, while sitting at the kitchen table of her home in southern Warren County.

Like other children in the Warren County Public School district, Lopez’s daughter, Lydia, who is eight, has been receiving non-traditional instruction, or NTI, at home due to winter weather, and mostly, COVID-19. Lopez has been on this ride for almost two years. At first, it was by choice. She home-schooled Lydia during the 2021-2022 school year.

“My elderly mom, when we built this house, we built it knowing we’d eventually have my Mom move in," explained Lopez. "She’s immuno-compromised. We knew when the pandemic started, that was going to be a concern. If she brought it home, if one of us got it and possibly gave it to her, that could be really bad news.”

Once everyone in the household got vaccinated, Lopez says she was comfortable sending her daughter back to school last August.

“I mean we got through that by the skin of our teeth. When she went back to school, we knew she needed to go back."

Lately, Lydia has been back to learning from her laptop at the kitchen table. Lydia, who attends Jody Richards Elementary School, sums up how a lot of her classmates feel.

“I’d rather be using a pencil than a mouse," she said.

For the most part, Lydia says the work isn’t hard nor nearly as time-consuming as a full day in class, but there’s one thing she misses most.

“Just not being able to talk to my friends because my teacher will mute me," Lydia said, with a laugh. "Normally I get to play with them at recess and talk to them at lunch, and do group projects, but now I don’t get to do that.”

Jenny Lopez stays home with Lydia to help with NTI while her husband works. She was a project manager for a computer company before she was laid off during the pandemic. Lopez says she can’t imagine the struggles being experienced by multiple working parents.

“I said when schools go back, I’d start looking for another job, but because things haven’t improved drastically, I’m kind of in limbo right now," explained Lopez. "Right now, his job pays the bills and I take care of her, and I know several families in the community who are not that privileged.”

Warren County Schools Superintendent Rob Clayton says he understands parents’ frustration.

“We’ve said from the very beginning that what happens on an NTI virtual instruction day isn’t commensurate with what we can provide in a typical classroom," Clayton told WKU Public Radio.

But Clayton added more NTI days are very likely with two more months of winter and surging cases of COVID-19. More than 400 WCPS students were in quarantine last week with the virus, but the most recent round of school closures was largely due to high illness rates among teachers. More than 100 teachers in the Warren County school system were out last week due to COVID-19, and there weren't enough substitute teachers to replace them.

WCPS has about 400 subs, but most of them aren’t available every day. Clayton says the school system is experiencing a similar workforce shortage seen throughout the community, state, and nation. Gov. Andy Beshear recently rejected the notion of putting Kentucky National Guard members into classrooms as substitutes. For now, Superintendent Clayton says WCPS administrators are helping fill teaching roles and retired educators are coming back as subs. But without recruitment of additional subs, the pandemic’s current surge will likely force more NTI days.

Some parents say they’d prefer to extend the school year if it means giving their kids in-person instruction, but Jenny Lopez says she thinks the school district should look at bringing back masks and offering vaccine clinics to boost the number of children immunized against the virus.

“I hate the kids have to be punished by giving a longer school year," Lopez said. "I don’t understand why there wasn’t a strategy for all this that didn’t include the nuclear option, because this feels a lot like the nuclear option to me.”

As for vaccine drives, Clayton says getting the shot is an individual decision, and the school system is keeping its focus on education. Masks, he says, will remain optional.

“A number of districts have remained masked as a requirement throughout the entire pandemic and several of those school districts had a far greater percentage of positive cases among students and staff than Warren County Public Schools," explained Clayton. "So I think it’s very difficult to form any conclusions based on whether a mask requirement would have a dramatic impact on what we’re experiencing right now.”

Clayton adds there’s no universal method to stop the spread of the virus, and says mitigation efforts are compromised by a "lack of community alignment."

Warren County Public Schools has already used seven of its NTI days for the year, but the legislature recently provided some relief for school districts overwhelmed by COVID-19. Gov. Beshear signed into law Senate Bill 25. The measure allows individual schools to use up to ten remote learning days, instead of an entire district cancelling classes. This is in addition to the ten NTI days entire districts already have under state law.

Those extra days are not likely to go unused. On Friday, Gov. Beshear announced Kentucky’s highest single-day number of COVID-19 cases ever at 16,130. The state also set a record positivity rate at more than 32%.

Lisa is a Scottsville native and WKU alum. She has worked in radio as a news reporter and anchor for 18 years. Prior to joining WKU Public Radio, she most recently worked at WHAS in Louisville and WLAC in Nashville. She has received numerous awards from the Associated Press, including Best Reporter in Kentucky. Many of her stories have been heard on NPR.
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