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Many questions remain for back-to-school planning

While the school year for Boyle County students just wrapped up, there is already a great deal of uncertainty and a lot of questions about the 2020-2021 school year due to COVID-19.

“It’s almost like trying to build a plane while you’re flying it,” Boyle County Schools Superintendent Mike LaFavers said.

LaFavers said there is still so much unknown in regard to the virus and how it will play out in the months of June and July that make preparing for the upcoming school year difficult.

When will the school year begin for students and teachers? That question seems to be up in the air right now as government, public health, and school leaders look to see what happens with COVID-19 moving forward into the warmer summer months.

As of now, KDE said districts need to prepare for three options. One option involves a return to school in July. If public health officials believe that a surge in COVID-19 cases could come in the fall or winter, schools may begin classes early to allow for as much traditional instruction time in July and August when the number of cases is expected to be lower.

A second, more traditional option would have schools opening in August as normal. This option, the document states, would be called for if the Kentucky Department of Public Health determines that the risk of students contracting COVID-19 will remain relatively consistent throughout the school year.

School districts are also being asked to prepare for a late opening, which would likely be in late September or early October. This option could be used if the number of cases remain high in the summer months and public health officials believe a reduction in cases could come later in the fall.

LaFavers said as of now, the district plans to begin the school year on Aug. 12. The district surveyed stakeholders, from students to parents to staff, and he said that was the preferred option as opposed to starting Aug. 3.

LaFavers said a July start is off the table for Boyle County, as construction on the new Boyle County Middle School continues and likely will not be finished in July.

While the first day of school is up in the air, questions also linger about how students will return to the classroom, if at all.

A document detailing reopening guidance for school districts last week provided a look into what education and public health officials are considering. One model that is being considered is a fully online model, while another is a hybrid model that would place students into two groups that would alternate periods of time in a school building with synchronous instruction at home. A third model is an opt-in model in which parents could choose whether their child would attend school in-person or virtually.

LaFavers said the district is looking at the possibility of a return to school as normal, with an opening day in mid-August with students physically in the classroom. Of course, that option is contingent on the rate of infection of COVID-19 severely decreasing during the summer months.

However, LaFavers said the district is looking at a continuation of how the 2019-2020 school year ended with students participating in remote learning.

“I think we’ve gotten a lot better at that and I think our teachers did a really good job with it,” LaFavers said. “So we are prepared to do that if that is what is needed.”

Boyle County Schools are also looking at the opt-in model to provide students and families with a choice of whether to return to the classroom or participate in the virtual academy.

Nothing has been decided yet, LaFavers said, as committees are examining these options and will continue to do so over the next several weeks to decide what would be the best option for everyone involved, while also monitoring the virus.

LaFavers said the district has brought in some individuals from KDE to talk about the different options as well as consulting with the local health department to ensure that the plan prioritizes student and staff safety.

Among many other possible changes are rapid closures and transitioning to remote learning.

Even while students are physically in school, if at all, the school day will likely look a lot different. State education officials are advising local district leaders to be prepared for arrangements that will have students alternating attendance between mornings and afternoons, or even alternating days or weeks in order to reduce class sizes and enforce social distancing policies.

LaFavers said that he understands the idea, but issues arise with parents/caretakers returning to work. He said the alternating schedule could present problems for many parents/caretakers.

School leaders also have many other questions to answer guiding decisions for the upcoming school year. District officials will have to figure out how to make sure students, faculty, and staff have access to face masks and other personal protective equipment, how to enforce proper social distancing during entry and exit as well as on buses and throughout the school day, and how to make sure that restrooms and water fountains are safe for students and staff.

LaFavers said this is certainly a challenge and there are several things to consider when trying to enforce social distancing policies, but he noted that a committee has already spent a lot of time talking about that during the couple weeks where the district has begun planning for next year.

School leaders will also have to consider whether to have school social events such as festivals, dances, parent nights, etc. to make sure guidelines are followed, as well as making sure that students’ mental and emotional health is being taken care of in addition to their physical health.

KDE is also asking districts to consider how to protect the health of staff members, household members, and caregivers who are 60 years or older or may have other conditions that leave them vulnerable to COVID-19.

Districts will also be tasked with forming a plan of how to respond if a student, teacher, or other school staff member tests positive for the virus.

The educational aspect is also a huge factor, as districts will be tasked with deciding the most effective way to provide quality education opportunities to special needs students, as well as gifted and talented students.

The financial aspect must also be taken into account, as there will be a need for a substantial increase in spending for cleaning materials, as well as a possible increase in staff to screen students and provide contact tracing.

LaFavers noted that the recently-passed federal CARES Act provides funding for school districts to purchase PPE and cleaning supplies, as well as funding for additional staff such as nurses.

However, the CARES Act does not provide any relief for cuts in SEEK funding, which comes from the state level and is provided to districts on a per-pupil basis, as well as any cuts to funding the district receives from property taxes.

While school districts across Kentucky have plenty of challenges and obstacles up ahead as they try to return to some sense of normalcy, LaFavers said one of the secondary challenges is the loss of socialization between students and teachers as well.

“You look at the loss of things like graduation, prom, sports, extracurricular activities, or even something as simple as students hanging out together after school to make a banner for a baseball game or something like that,” LaFavers said. “You know, our first priority is keeping everyone safe. We also want to make sure we’re providing quality instruction, but that social aspect of it is very important too.”

Despite the challenges, LaFavers said he has a great group of individuals across the board working hard to make the best decisions moving forward.

“It isn’t easy,” LaFavers said. “We’re not only trying to come up with one plan. We’re trying to come up with three plans and we have a lot of people working really hard to do that.”