By Senator Max Wise, Chairman, Senate Standing Committee on Education
Students, teachers, parents, and school administrators across the Bluegrass have officially undertaken the 2020 school year’s significant challenges.
We, members of the Kentucky General Assembly, continue to hear from constituents across the state who have expressed the concerns and frustrations with what 2020 has brought. None have been more prevalent than those related to our children’s education. As we all continue to do the best we can in less than ideal circumstances, we want Kentucky to know that we hear your voices.
First, let us take a moment to acknowledge and appreciate everyone’s work within the education system. Educators and others have had to adjust with each curveball this unprecedented year has thrown.
With the arrival of COVID-19, students found their school year cut short in the spring. Throughout the following months, education professionals were tasked with the great responsibility of learning to live in a COVID-19 world. They deserve commendation for doing that. They sought guidance from medical professionals and asked for needed directives from the state. In late June, requested guidance was finally provided to them. School districts did a spectacular job of developing plans that prioritized what health professionals—such as those at the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) and the American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP)—have argued is the best interest of our kids; safely returning them to school.
As you may know, a “recommendation” from the Governor and potential “consequences,” reported by the Kentucky Department of Education abruptly threw a wrench in districts’ well-thought-out reopening plans. This came as a disappointment to many school districts where there was overwhelming support to return to some in-person learning.
Despite confidence in implementing CDC health guidelines and in-person or Non-Traditional Instruction (NTI) options provided to families, most Kentucky school districts were compelled to move forward with virtual learning only.
The Governor has stated, “We should not experiment with our kids.” I agree and remain concerned about the hypothesis that NTI is in students’ and families’ best interests. I am troubled by some of the discoveries this experiment has brought so far.
In Kentucky’s largest school district, Jefferson County Public Schools (JCPS), the experiment with NTI began with about 4,500 students not making contact in week one. As the year ended, around 600 students had not been heard from since schools closed. Problems have persisted into the new school year. On August 26, JCPS experienced online disruptions. Some included profanity, smoking, and even pornographic images. To mitigate this problem, JCPS now has to transition to a new platform for NTI. As if the disruption of COVID-19 in the education of our kids is not enough, JCPS students had their first week cut short as the district dealt with the issue.
That is not the only issue districts are facing. The second-largest school district in the state, Fayette County Public Schools, experienced the effects of laptop shortages when it found itself 12,000 computers short of meeting demand. The fact of the matter is that without adequate access to NTI, a student cannot learn at all.
The technological divide is mostly present in more rural areas of our state. A lack of access to the internet has left some students behind. Districts are doing the best they can, but it is alarming to hear from struggling parents and guardians about how their child’s only connection to their teacher is stored on a flash drive. However, on the bright side, we are seeing communities come together for our kids like never before. Churches and organizations like Kentucky Farm Bureau are providing Wi-Fi hotspots for families to access the internet. I want to give a special acknowledgment to a partnership in Russell County—a county I am blessed to represent—where the district has worked with Duo-Broadband to establish hotspots in that area. Duo Broadband has previously donated $10,000 to the Russell County School District for technology upgrades. There are numerous other examples across the state of private entities stepping up to the plate for Kentucky students. We are grateful for each of them.
To continue, it is important to recognize the struggles parents and guardians are facing. Without childcare, they are left to scramble to find care for their children so that they can work to put food on their table. Counterintuitive to our goal of protecting our most vulnerable, some are left no other option but to rely on grandparents or other elderly family members for childcare. Some are finding elderly guardians ill-prepared to provide students the educational support they need when completing class materials during the school day. Parents are struggling to make sure their children do not fall behind by trying to provide that support after they return from work. I am concerned at the level of feedback from my constituents expressing the challenges they are facing.
Our response to this pandemic’s saddest side-effect is the irreparable harm it is doing to our kids. The trajectory of their lives is being altered. When the CDC and the AAP encourage the safe return to school, it is not a recommendation they make lightly. Schools serve as a vital resource for our kids. Beyond education, they provide an emotional, social, and even physical haven.
One of the most challenging testimonies legislators have heard during the ongoing 2020 Interim Session was from childcare providers who shared that reported child abuse cases are down over 25%. Professionals will tell you that it is not because less abuse occurs, but because signs of it are not being identified by the teachers and school staff who are trained to recognize and report it.
Recognizing Kentucky’s one size fits all school recommendations’ unintended side effects is the first step in acknowledging there is a better approach. That approach was already well-vetted by school districts across the state and reviewed by the Kentucky Department of Education. It implemented the CDC’s safety guidelines that required masks, hand sanitizer stations, traffic flows in the halls, and even bus seating. Many districts designed staggered school schedules that would have had some students on Mondays and Tuesday and others on Thursdays and Fridays. Wednesdays would be an NTI day and a day to sanitize the school. Plans also rightfully considered the concerns of families who may be vulnerable to COVID-19 by providing NTI options. If other states in our great nation can recognize the value of a more targeted approach to addressing this health crisis, and if European governments are fully embracing a return to school, so can Kentucky.
While Kentucky has taken as a statewide approach to addressing COVID-19, states such as Colorado, Nevada, and even Illinois has found value in a more targeted approach. Colorado has trusted local municipalities to make decisions based on local data. Nevada has taken a county-by-county approach. Illinois developed a regional approach. This has enabled those states to have local responses based on local data. Furthermore, European countries have correctly understood the negative impacts of students not being in school. Each has refused the blanketed approach taken in Kentucky and has chosen to rely on safety precautions, allowing students to receive the educational experience they deserve while dealing with outbreaks in a targeted manner.
Unfortunately, Kentucky has the reluctance to acknowledge that Jefferson County and Cumberland County are not the same. When a single county in Kentucky accounts for 17% of the state’s population, but 41% of COVID-19 cases, it is unjust to apply the same standard to students in counties with far fewer cases.
I hope that we can reassess our approach because an unwillingness to do so only harms our kids. This virus is with us, but we have to adapt and learn to live in a COVID-19 world. There is no logical basis to believe that the virus’s spread will be any different on September 28 when the Governor said schools might reopen for in-person learning. Cases exist now, and they will likely exist then. Other states and other countries have recognized this reality. They have returned their kids to school with an abundance of caution. It is time Kentucky joins them. The world’s future belongs to our kids, so we have a moral obligation to prepare them for it adequately. The Kentucky legislature still stands ready to work with officials to do what is best for Kentucky students.