Many Kentucky schools will welcome public school students next week for the first time in five months. In March, the coronavirus sent students home to finish the school year online, and while many are ready to return to the classroom, a recent uptick of COVID-19 cases among children is complicating school reopening plans.
Still, some traditional signs of getting back to school are being seen in communities throughout the commonwealth.
Mary Osborne and her daughter, Lillie, recently teamed up for a little back-to-school shopping at TJ Maxx in Bowling Green. Lillie picked out leggings from the racks.
“Should I get both, or one, because they’re like the same thing?," Lillie asked. "I don’t know what will look better."
"Well, you can’t try them on, because corona is bad in the dressing room but not a home, but you can return them. Makes no sense," replied Mary Osborne.
Lillie is heading into her sophomore year at Greenwood High School. Her summer has included lots of family time on the lake, but she said she's more than ready to see her classmates.
“I think it will be different because of all the new rules, and how we’ll be doing some days at school and some online. But I’m ready to get back into everything and be able to see everybody," she said. "I think it will be weird having to wear masks, and we’ll probably be way more separated in the classroom with our seats, and the hallways will probably look weird.”
Lillie’s mother, Mary, says the family has lived their lives as normal as possible since the COVID-19 outbreak, and school should be no different.
“We’re already out in public, our family for sure. We go shopping, we eat out, we visit with friends, and I just think if you’re doing all of those things, you should be able to go back to school.”
Osborne’s thoughts represent one side of a great divide between parents, educators, medical experts, and state government. Gov. Andy Beshear challenged many school districts’ plans to return to traditional learning this month when he urged them to postpone in-person classes until at least the end of September.
But several school systems in the state are moving forward with different plans, including the Bowling Green Independent and Warren County school districts. Warren County Schools Superintendent Rob Clayton maintains the coronavirus has left school systems without any good options.
"Not only is this a challenging and complex situation for all of us, it's really resulted in a no-win situation," Clayton said. "In other words, no matter which path we take, there are going to be significant challenges and a very difficult path."
Before Beshear’s recommendation, WCPS and the BGISD had given parents the option of sending their children to school or learning from home through a virtual academy. A majority of parents in both districts chose to send their students back to the classroom. With that in mind, the leaders of those districts went searching for a compromise.
The Warren County Board of Education this week approved a school reopening plan allowing students who wish to attend in-person to be in the classroom two days a week, while learning from home three days a week. There will be no changes for students who chose to enroll in the virtual academy.
A few parents urged the school board to allow in-person instruction five days a week, citing concerns about child care and their students falling behind academically. Angie Poteet said when the district went to non-traditional learning in March at the onset of the coronavirus outbreak, her children suffered.
“My two primary children has special needs," explained Poteet. "They have learning and developmental issues, and during NTI I noticed a lot of regression in my children.”
As a foster and adoptive mom, Poteet said she worries especially about the most vulnerable students.
“I know there are children daily who are being abused and neglected, and our schools, our teachers, principals, and staff, are the eyes and ears for the abuse for those children," Poteet said.
Warren County parent Todd Oller has children who attend Drakes Creek Middle School and Greenwood High School. He coaches middle school football and says the parents he's spoken to feel it's imperative to get their kids back in the classroom.
"They are suffering emotionally and in need of normalcy in their lives. The virtual substitute is useless in all aspects of what our kids need," stated Oller. "The Covid hysteria is politically driven and those pushing it are willing to sacrifice our children’s academic, emotional and psychological well being to suit their political agenda."
With the state’s positive test rate above five percent and more children testing positive for COVID-19, Kentucky Interim Education Commissioner Kevin Brown has said he doesn’t want to open schools and have to shut down again if students and staff become ill—something other states like Tennessee and Georgia are experiencing. At his Wednesday news briefing, Gov. Beshear pointed out the number of new coronavirus cases in several counties that are planning to restart in-person learning next week.
"Thirty in Warren, including five 18-year-olds. Could be high school seniors, could be freshman at WKU," Beshear said. "Nineteen in Barren, including one high school age girl, and one elementary age boy. I hope the contact tracing is going on right now.”
Warren County Schools Superintendent Rob Clayton said last week that local data suggests it’s safe to reopen schools. But in a twist of irony, Bowling Green Schools Superintendent Gary Fields tested positive for COVID-19, and although he’s asymptomatic, he’s under quarantine at home until Sunday. The BGISD resumes classes on Monday under a hybrid schedule of in-person instruction, as well.
Clayton says the Barren River District Health Department supports the school system's decision to resume in-person instruction. When asked to confirm that, the department's director, Matt Hunt, issued this statement:
"The Barren River District Health Department respects the autonomy of each local school board to make a decision regarding the date they will begin in-person instruction. Once a decision is made by the local school board regarding in-person instruction, our agency stands ready to provide support for case investigations and contact tracing as the need arises."
Commissioner Brown recently said that districts reopening schools before the end of September could face a state shutdown, but WCPS Superintendent Rob Clayton says he doesn’t think it will come to that because district leaders will be monitoring coronavirus cases in the region and consulting with local health experts. If warranted, the school system is prepared to go all virtual. But in the meantime, Clayton says the district is moving forward with a "soft opening."
"We’ll get our students in, in a manageable number," Clayton said. "We’ll be able to ensure if we do need to move to a virtual format districtwide, these students have the resources available to increase their opportunities for success in that format.”
Clayton says even a short period of in-person classes will allow students to make personal connections with teachers and acclimate kindergarten students, as well as students making the transition to middle and high school.
The first Kentucky school district to resume in-person classes was in session one week before announcing on Friday that it would shut down for at least two weeks. The Green County School District says there are no known positive cases of COVID-19 among faculty, staff, or students.
"We are transitioning to virtual learning out of an abundance of caution as community cases rise," read a statement on the school system's website.
The district plans to resume in-person instruction on Sept. 8 if the number of cases are on the decline.