The first school district in Kentucky to open to in-person learning despite Gov. Andy Beshear’s recommendation to wait announced Friday that it would shut down for at least two weeks.
Green County Superintendent William Hodges said in a social media video the closure was due to increased coronavirus activity in the county. Hodges also said the district had received unofficial notice of an employee at Green County High School testing positive.
Shawn Crabtree, director of the Lake Cumberland District Health Department, confirmed that one school employee tested positive. That person was asked to isolate and two people who had contact with the employee were asked to quarantine, Crabtree said.
The health department asked 21 other people who may have had contact with the the employee to monitor themselves for symptoms, Crabtree said.
Hodges said there were no known cases among students.
Hodges said the school system would move to virtual learning beginning Monday, Aug. 24, and hoped to return to in-person classes on Sept. 8 if the level of coronavirus cases in the community subsides enough.
The district opened last Monday, Aug. 17, to in-person learning. Beshear had asked schools to wait until at least Sept. 28.
Hodges said in an interview earlier this week that he expected the school system, which has 1,700 students, would have to switch to virtual learning at times, for varying periods, based on the number of COVID-19 cases in the community.
The district set out a variety of protections for students and staff, including social distancing, temperature checks and use of masks.
Hodges said 87 percent of the parents surveyed by the district wanted students back in classrooms. Only 19 percent of parents chose virtual insruction when the schools opened Monday, he said.
Lake Cumberland District Health Department said in a post Thursday that Green County had 48 current cases. It had among the highest rate of COVID-19 cases per 10,000 population in the 10-county district — 88.6, compared to 75.6 in the district as a whole.
There had been relatively few cases in the district until mid-July, when they started to escalate. There were 25 new cases reported in the county on Thursday. That was by far the most in the district, which had 55 new cases overall.
That increase in new cases in the district was the biggest one-day growth since the pandemic started, according to a post by Crabtree.
Crabtree said school officials in Green County and elsewhere have worked hard to come up with the best plans they could to protect students and staff members.
But he called that a futile effort. noting that COVID-19 cases had spread in facilities such as nursing homes and health departments with much tighter controls than schools could implement.
“It’s gonna infiltrate a school,” Crabtree said. “You’re putting hundreds of people in a confined space for several hours.”
Crabtree said young people are the least likely to show symptoms from the virus, so one worry about in-person instruction is that kids who don’t feel sick will expose parents and grandparents to the virus.
“You’ll have spread in the schools that they don’t know about,” he said. “I’m worried about three or four weeks down the road, the community impact.”
More than one dozen public school districts are tentatively set to open next week to some form of face-to-face instruction despite Beshear’s recommendation, said Kentucky Department of Education spokeswoman Toni Tatman.
Tatman said a total of about 30 school districts out of 171 are against the Governor’s recommendation in some way.
Beshear and Kentucky Public Health Commissioner Steven Stack are committed to getting students back to in-person classes, but doing so safely, Beshear spokesman Sebastian Kitchen said Friday after the Green County announcement.
“The spread of the coronavirus is currently at a level where even the best reopening plans are likely to fail, which is why they recommended delaying in-person instruction until September 28 for the safety of our children, our educators and their families,” Kitchen said.
The Kentucky Department of Education supports Beshear’s recommendation to delay in-person instruction in Kentucky’s public schools until Sept. 28, based on the health and safety concerns for not only the people in school buildings, but also for parents and communities, said Tatman.
Kentucky continues to see a high level of total COVID-19 cases and a correspondingly high positive test rate, said Tatman. The state has an increasing number of infections among children, both in Kentucky and nationwide; continued outbreaks occurring in states that have attempted reopening schools, including Indiana, Mississippi and Georgia and families still going on vacations in COVID-19 hot spots, then returning to Kentucky, she said.
Interim Commissioner Kevin Brown and Lu Young, Chair of the Kentucky Board of Education, as well as other state health and education officials, have continued to have conversations this week with public school superintendents considering opening to in-person classes before Sept. 28, said Tatman.
Districts that won’t go with the recommendation have been asked to check with their local health department about setting up COVID-19 testing protocols.
They have been asked to check with the school board’s legal counsel on whether reopening soon could cause problems in the district’s liability coverage, and double down on safety guidance as outlined in the Healthy at School flagship guidance.
“We have been saying all along that we value and honor decisions about the 2020-2021 school year being feasible, practical and tailored to the needs of each community, but we also must balance this with the lessons we are learning from other states – and now within the Commonwealth – that tried to open too soon and now are faced with having to close,” Brown said.
“These kinds of actions create more complications by having to start and stop in-person instruction. In the end, we all want what’s best for our children despite how difficult this might be,” said Brown.
Regardless of when a school district decides when to resume in-person classes, department officials said they will support the state’s 171 districts as they implement their reopening plans.
Staff writer Valarie Honeycutt Spears covers K-12 education, social issues and other topics. She is a Lexington native with southeastern Kentucky roots.