Keeping students learning in their classrooms should be the overarching goal of any education policy responding to disruption caused by COVID-19, a key lawmaker said on Wednesday.
As more Kentucky school districts suspend in-person learning as the highly contagious delta variant spreads, a legislative panel examined options to give local school administrators more leeway to respond to staff shortages and virus outbreaks.
The hearing took place on the same day that Bluegrass State reported nearly 5,000 new cases of the coronavirus – one of its highest totals in the pandemic – and 12 other virus-related deaths.
The Republican-dominated legislature is gearing up for a special legislative session scheduled following a landmark court ruling that tasked lawmakers with setting pandemic policies.
Democratic Governor Andy Beshear, who holds the exclusive power to convene such a session, said it was due soon, but wanted to see a “general consensus” on the way forward before making the call.
Republican Senator Max Wise said on Wednesday that the goal of any pandemic-related education measure should be to keep schools open – while maintaining the safety of students and staff – and handing over to school boards and superintendents locals take care of making the decisions that best suit their districts.
As chairman of the Senate Education Committee, Wise will play a key role in crafting such a measure for a special session. Schools have switched to virtual learning for much of the previous school year, but Wise said there is a consensus to avoid this in the current year.
“I haven’t spoken to a single educator or superintendent that the goal hasn’t been, let’s do whatever it takes to keep ourselves in person in the school buildings,” Wise said at the hearing of the committee.
Wise, who is considering a candidacy for governor in 2023, also stressed his preference for policies that promote local decision-making over a comprehensive state-wide approach to schools.
“We know that a one-size-fits-all approach has not worked well,” he said.
Based on her discussions with superintendents, Wise also said there was “no type of appetite” for granting school districts unlimited non-traditional teaching days with home-learning students. Currently, the state can waive up to 10 so-called NTI days to count toward student attendance days in school district calendars.
One option discussed by local school leaders is a more tailored approach to distance learning, allowing them to apply it to a single school or even a classroom in response to the pandemic, said Jim Flynn, executive director of the Kentucky Association of School Superintendents. Meanwhile, in-person learning would continue for everyone.
“I think that would be a much appreciated flexibility that would be helpful to our superintendents, councils and communities,” Flynn told the committee.
Lawmakers have also considered another approach – known as the “test-to-stay” program – used in some districts. Green County Schools Superintendent Will Hodges acknowledged that the program has kept children in their classrooms in his district. As part of the program, students exposed to COVID-19 at school and who test negative for six days can stay in class.
“So they’re not quarantined, they don’t stay home for two weeks, but they can stay in school,” Hodges said.
In County Green, the program is optional for parents, but most have chosen the “test to stay” option, he said. Of the 159 students in his district who participated in the program, 146 of them continued to test negative, he said. .
Another pressing issue is the impact the pandemic could have on the future funding of schools.
Lawmakers have heard concerns that without adjusting the funding formula for schools, absences related to the pandemic would hurt future funding for districts. Lawmakers previously allowed districts to use pre-pandemic attendance figures for years affected by COVID-19.
For over a year, the governor unilaterally set virus policies in Kentucky. But the state Supreme Court recently transferred those rulings to the legislature. The court paved the way for new laws to limit the governor’s emergency powers, which he used to impose virus-related restrictions.
Since the decision, Beshear has been negotiating with lawmakers for the expected special session. Various emergency measures previously issued by the governor are expected to expire following the court ruling. It’s up to lawmakers to decide if they keep them in place.
Meanwhile, the state reported 4,941 new cases of COVID-19 on Wednesday – its third-highest daily total from the pandemic, Beshear said. The state has reported 1,560 new infections among Kentuckians 18 and under.
More than 2,260 patients infected with the virus are hospitalized in Kentucky, including 644 in intensive care units and 410 on ventilators, according to the daily report.