Jess Clark

Jess Clark is WWNO's Education Desk reporter. Jess comes to the station after two years as Fletcher Fellow for Education Policy Reporting for North Carolina Public Radio - WUNC (Chapel Hill). Her reporting has aired on national programs, including NPR's All Things ConsideredHere & Now from WBURand NPR's Weekend Edition

Originally from Louisville, Kentucky, Jess graduated from the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill in 2015 with a master's in Journalism and Mass Communication.

Corrine Boyer

With weeks to go before the beginning of the 2021-2022 school year, state officials say the highly contagious delta variant of COVID-19 has led to a quintupling of new cases since the beginning of July, mostly among unvaccinated people.

Monday afternoon, Gov. Andy Beshear took to the podium with state education leaders to urge school districts to adopt mask requirements, but didn’t mandate they do so.

“Our priority is not to play politics, our priority isn’t to do some red or blue thing, or get involved in some ridiculous so-called culture war. Our priority: It’s our kids, and it is having them in class every day,” Beshear said.

Beshear said he was issuing three “clear recommendations” or “expectations,” which are in line with the July 15 guidance from the Kentucky Department of Education and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention:

Kentucky Department of Education

State and local education leaders doubled down on their commitment to racial equity Tuesday, during an hours-long legislative committee meeting about critical race theory.

The decades-old theory, a critique of systemic racism in the legal field, has become a lightning rod for some conservatives who are distressed by diversity, equity and inclusion efforts in schools and workplaces. A handful of Kentucky Republican lawmakers have pre-filed bills that they say would ban critical race theory from public K-12 schools, colleges and universities.

Addressing the Interim Joint Education Committee remotely, Kentucky Commissioner of Education Jason Glass blasted the bills as “educator gag and student censorship bills.”

Chris Jenner

A former teacher at a Louisville Catholic school says the archdiocese fired her because she had sex outside of marriage. 

Former St. Andrew Academy middle school teacher Sarah Syring is suing the Archdiocese of Louisville. According to the complaint, after Syring told her administrators she was pregnant last fall, they gave her a choice: resign or marry the child’s father. She declined to do either, and the archdiocese fired her, saying she had broken provisions in the employee handbook. 

“I was shocked,” Syring said. “I just had a nice rapport with so many of those kids, and—man—I cried. I cried a lot.”

Syring is alleging gender discrimination. She says she, a woman, was fired for having extramarital sex. Meanwhile, she says, the archdiocese was aware of an male employee who had extramarital sex, but did not terminate him.

J. Tyler Franklin

A Kentucky state lawmaker is introducing legislation that would keep transgender women athletes from playing on women’s sports teams. 

Winchester Republican Rep. Ryan Dotson said he’s prefiling a bill that will exclude transgender women and girls from those teams for public schools in the state, including universities. The Kentucky General Assembly will consider it when the next session begins.

“Allowing transgender women to participate in women’s sports gives transgender women an unfair advantage,” he wrote in an emailed statement Thursday.

“The measure would designate that participation for all athletic teams, activities, and sports be based on the biological sex of students eligible to participate,” he said.

Jess Clark | WFPL

Two more Kentucky Republican lawmakers want to limit teaching about systemic racism in the state’s public schools. Nicholasville Rep. Matt Lockett and Rep. Jennifer Henson Decker of Waddy filed a bill ahead of the next legislative session that they say would prevent public K-12 schools and public colleges and universities from teaching critical race theory. 

Critical race theory is a study of how institutions favor white people, and disadvantage people of color. Those ideas have gained more widespread understanding as calls for racial justice mounted after the police killings of George Floyd, Breonna Taylor and other Black people in 2020. But, now, ideas about systemic racism are facing a conservative backlash.

“The language of BR 69 speaks clearly that the people of Kentucky stand united against this attempt to use our education system to indoctrinate our children,” Lockett and Henson Decker wrote in an emailed statement.

KET screenshot

A Kentucky state lawmaker has proposed a measure that would make schools subject to fines and teachers subject to discipline if they talk about systemic racism in a certain way. 

Fort Thomas Republican Rep. Joe Fischer pre-filed the bill ahead of the next legislative session. It takes aim at critical race theory: the idea that racism is perpetuated on a systemic level. The framework has been around for decades, but it gained more attention after last year’s calls for racial justice.

Now those ideas are facing a conservative backlash, including from Kentucky conservatives like Fischer.

Creative Commons/Cytonn Photography

School districts across the state are expanding all-virtual school programs to accommodate extra students in the fall.

The state is requiring districts to open at full capacity, five days a week, next school year. But district leaders say some parents may not be comfortable with in-person learning as the pandemic continues.

“We do believe going into this next year that there will be a segment of our population that will be struggling with the idea of getting back to normalization, or maybe there are some health concerns within the family,” Fayette County Schools director of pupil personnel Steve Hill told an interim legislative committee Tuesday. 

About 9,500 Fayette County Schools students are still remote, or about 22% of students. Now the district is expanding its existing online high school to a K-12 model. Hill says around 200 students have already selected a fully online option for the fall.

Creative Commons

People held in Kentucky prisons and juvenile justice centers will be allowed in-person visitors again beginning June 20, for the first time in more than a year.

Gov. Andy Beshear halted in-person visitation at state Department of Corrections and Department of Juvenile Justice facilities last March in an effort to keep out the coronavirus. Since then, visitation could only be conducted virtually. Still, nearly 8,000 adults held in correctional facilities have tested positive for the virus since the pandemic began.

Keturah Herron, policy strategist with the ACLU of Kentucky, said resuming in-person visitation is “huge” for incarcerated people and their mental health.

Med Center Health

Kentuckians are fairly evenly split on whether schools and workplaces should require students and employees to be vaccinated against COVID-19, according to a poll the Foundation for a Healthy Kentucky released Friday.

The poll found 47% of Kentuckians thought it would be a “good idea” to require the COVID-19 vaccine for students to attend in-person school, while 50% thought it would be a “bad idea.” 

Meanwhile, Kentuckians are slightly more favorable to the idea that businesses should require employees to get vaccinated before returning to work in person: 52% said they thought it was a “good idea,” while 44% said they thought it was a “bad idea.” 

The poll surveyed 807 adults by telephone between Feb. 11 and March 12 — before the Pfizer vaccine gained authorization for use in children ages 12-15. Researchers say the margin of error is 3.5%.

Jess Clark

The Jefferson County Board of Education is suing the marketing and business consulting firm McKinsey & Company over its alleged role in fueling the opioid epidemic.

In a lawsuit filed Wednesday in federal court, the school board alleges McKinsey is responsible for the millions of dollars in costs Kentucky school districts are spending to handle the epidemic’s impact on students, families and employees.

According to the lawsuit, Jefferson County Public Schools is seeking damages for costs related to providing special education and related services to children who were exposed to opioids in utero.

J. Tyler Franklin

Key employees at the Churchill Downs racetrack may strike on Derby Day. Representatives for the track’s workers’ union said they haven’t been able to come to an agreement with Churchill Downs over pay and benefits for the company’s valets.

“And now we’re getting to the brink of a very scary decision: whether we strike an event that the world watches,” said attorney David Suetholtz, who represents the Service Employees International Union (SEIU) Local 541. 

The union has about 400 members, and around 200 of them usually work the Derby, Suetholtz said.

According to Suetholtz, the union has been trying to negotiate its three-year contract since last July for the valets at Churchill Downs, and since last February for those at Turfway Park in Florence. Valets saddle and unsaddle the horses, and make sure each horse is carrying the same weight.

World Economic Forum/Wikimedia Commons

Activists are calling on the Kentucky Horse Racing Commission to ban Derby favorite Essential Quality and his owner, the ruler of Dubai. The activists point to findings by a British court that Sheikh Mohammed bin Rashid Al Maktoum kidnapped his own daughter and is holding her hostage.

Their demand is based on a 2020 fact-finding judgement by a British court, which found that Sheikh Mohammad kidnapped his then 33-year-old daughter Sheikha Latifa in 2018 as she was trying to flee the emirate and seek asylum in the United States. 

According to University of Louisville law professor Sam Marcosson, Sheikha Latifa made it to international waters on a U.S. ship, when Emirati and Indian forces stormed the vessel and took her and the crew captive. She has not been heard from since.

Ryan Van Velzer

“It’s just a blessing that somebody is finally listening,” said Denorver “Dee” Garrett, a 29-year-old Louisville protester, fighting back tears. “That somebody is finally hearing our voices — after over a year.”

Garrett was speaking in Jefferson Square Park on Monday afternoon, not far from where an LMPD officer last week punched him in the face multiple times while police officers restrained him on the ground during an arrest. Garrett’s sense of relief follows news that the U.S. Department of Justice will investigate the Louisville Metro Police Department and Louisville Metro Government. 

The investigation means the highest levels of the federal government will soon focus their scrutiny on Louisville.

Jess Clark | WFPL

School districts across Kentucky are trying to decide whether to offer students a chance to repeat the 2020-2021 academic year, to make up for what some parents believe was a period of lost learning due to the pandemic. 

new Kentucky law allows districts to let students in grades K-12 retake a full year of classes, possibly for a better grade. The measure also allows students, including some graduating seniors, to participate in an additional year of athletics. 

Lawmakers left it to individual school districts to decide whether or not to offer the “supplemental school year.” Families must submit their requests to participate by May 1, and districts must decide by June 1 whether to offer the program. Districts can’t pick and choose which requests to grant—if they decide to offer the supplemental school year, they must oblige all who request it.

Liz Schlemmer

Kentucky 120 United, the public education advocacy group that led mass teacher sickouts in 2018 and 2019, is unionizing.

“We seek better. We seek more. We seek our voices to be heard in the halls of Frankfort and our local communities,” KY 120 United co-founder Nema Brewer said Monday from the steps of the state capitol.

It was inside that building that KY 120 United gathered thousands of teachers, school employees, parents and other supporters in 2018 and 2019 to oppose attempts to slash teacher retirement benefits, create charter schools and send would-be tax dollars to private schools. According to Brewer, the group now has 38,000 members.