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Most Western Ky. Schools Plan Online-Only For Back To School, Some Remain Undecided

Taymaz Valley

Western Kentucky public schools over the summer set out multiple plans to offer in-person, online, and hybrid/alternating courses in what appears to be an effort to be prepared for anything. But just as many were beginning to settle into the plan to reopen campuses later this month, districts across the state were thrown into a scramble when Gov. Andy Beshear announced on Aug. 10 his recommendation the schools hold off in-person instruction until Sept. 28. 


Most school districts in far western Kentucky have come back from the drawing board with an announcement to heed the governor’s recommendation and begin the school year offering online-only courses. But a few plan to stay the course with in-person learning, and several other districts are still undecided.


In addition to emails and robo-calls to families within their districts, the school districts making up the Jackson Purchase and westernmost Pennyrile areas shared plans and procedures as well as pertinent announcements on their respective websites and social media pages. More than one of those announcements made by superintendents on social media asserted the “recommendation” to hold off on in-person learning until late September did not allow as much flexibility in decision-making as it appeared.


Carlisle County Superintendent Jay Simmons shared a written statement on his district’s Facebook page explaining the district halted plans for the in-person learning “while [the board] decide[s] what to do.” He acknowledged the “broader community” was supportive of returning to in-person learning and the risks involved with that option, but said the school was prepared to take every precaution for keeping staff and students safe.


Simmons told WKMS among the considerations in weighing whether or not to initiate in-person learning in late August was the well being of the students. He said some students only thrive with one-on-one, in-person instruction, some lack proper nutrition at home and some students absolutely need access to the school counselors. 


“The ability to have access to a licensed counselor is a big deal because if kids need that and they don’t get it, there could be dire circumstances, consequences, I should say.”


In a social media post, Simmons highlighted other concerns the board of education and administration were considering in the decision that has yet to be made regarding in-person learning for their district.

“... We have been told that failure to comply [with the recommendation] will draw immediate and intense scrutiny and intervention from state officials. Superintendents and board members will be required to participate in online sessions with state officials to explain noncompliance, with the express purpose of having them change their decision,” he wrote in part. “After that call, should the school district not postpone its start, the prospect of forced closure has been proposed.”


Toni Konz Tatman, Interim Chief Communications Officer for the Kentucky Department of Education (KDE) told WKMS while the department has hosted calls with 15 of the state’s 171 school districts to discuss their reopening plan, the governor’s recommendation to hold off on in-person learning until Sept. 28 is just that —a recommendation. She said KDE has asked  schools that don’t plan to comply with the governor’s recommendation to notify her department so they may advise the safest methods for moving forward with in-person learning.


Tatman noted KDE is supportive of Beshear’s recommendation to delay in-person learning because that recommendation was based on science and advice from health experts. She also noted with the numbers of positive cases in Kentucky are on the rise, the risk for children is increasing. Shepointed toward school-wide outbreaks in neighboring states including Indiana and Georgia.


“COVID-19 is extremely hot in the state of Kentucky and we’re concerned that with even the best plan...the risk for spreading the disease is very high,” she added.


Tatman said during the conversations with districts that choose to stay on course with reopening in-person courses in the coming weeks, KDE Interim Commissioner Kevin Brown advises putting in place a number of procedures including testing protocols, checking with legal counsel regarding the school’s liability in case of an outbreak, and “doubling down” on the safety protocols as outlined in the Healthy at School guidance. 


Tatman said while the department respects the right of each school district to make the best decision for the needs of their communities, those decisions must be balanced with the lessons learned from other districts that have reopened. 


“In the end we all want what’s best for our children,” she said. “We’re here 24/7 to support our districts and regardless of their decision to open, we will be there for our districts because that's what we do.”


Tatman said the majority of the 171 school districts across the commonwealth are opting to delay in-person learning until at least Sept. 28. She said KDE releases a number of safety guidance documents each Monday on its website and since March has held virtual meetings with superintendents each Tuesday. She said while those meetings are hosted for the benefit of the superintendents, they are open to the public, and the link for joining is available on the KDE website. 


Hopkins County Schools is among the many schools which chose to delay in-person instruction until later in the school year. The Hopkins County Board of Education issued a statement on its Facebook page which noted the district “hasn’t been together as a family of students and staff since March.”


“We miss our kids, and it saddens us to receive this recommendation,” the statement reads in part. “We realize this is a challenge for our working parents and community, however the governor’s announcement was not unexpected based on our current numbers. We continue to work with the local business community through ‘Operation: Caring for Our Kids’ to seek new options for child care. The soft openings planned for our in-person students will be rescheduled when it is deemed safe to return.” 

Calloway County Schools is among those who chose to reopen in-person learning despite the governor’s recommendation. Calloway County Schools Superintendent Tres Settle shared a written statement on the district’s social media site which states in part, “The Calloway County Board of Education, in representation of their constituents, does not agree that this recommendation [to delay in-person learning until Sept. 28] is in the best interests of the students and families of Calloway County Schools. ...It is our unified belief that we are making this decision in the best interest of the children of Calloway County, a decision reflective of our ‘Every Child Matters, Every Moment Counts’ motto.”


Crittenden County Schools Superintendent Vince Clark announced his district also chose to reopen with in-person learning as an option for students, and listed a number of considerations regarding student health and input from the community’s families in the written statement. 


“While we do not dismiss the seriousness of the virus, we do believe that in our county, the risk is relatively low and the need for our students to have the option to return to in-person learning is high,” the statement reads in part. “The longer our students are out of the classroom, the more some of them are at risk for summer slide (the tendency for students to lose some of the achievement gains they made the previous school year), neglect, abuse, and malnutrition. Additionally, trying to arrange child care for students at home is a challenge for working families across our district.”


Begin The School Year Virtually For All


Murray Independent School District amended its school year plan to begin online instruction for all students Aug. 24. The district issued a public information release stating its board of education will continue to monitor and assess the COVID-19 cases in the community and in the event of a decline will host a special meeting to re-evaluate initiating in-person classes prior to the recommended date of Sept. 28. 


Christian County Public Schools Board of Education voted to follow the recommendation and begin the school year on Aug. 27 with online Non-Traditional Instruction (NTI), with initiation of in-person classes stalled until Sept. 28. 


McCracken County Schools Superintendent Steve Carter issued a written statement announcing the district will begin the school year on Aug. 24 with the virtual/distance learning plan approved by the board in July. The statement did not comment regarding a proposed timeline for initiating in-person classes.


Fulton County Schools Superintendent Patrice Chambers issued a statement announcing the district will begin the school year virtually on Sept. 9. 


Trigg County Schools Superintendent Bill Thorpe announced the board of education voted to start the school year online-only. The board has a special-called meeting scheduled for Aug. 17 to set the start date.


Caldwell County Schools Superintendent Nate Huggins announced all students will begin the school year with virtual learning on Aug. 24. The district plans to initiate in-person learning on Sept. 28.


Webster County Schools Superintendent Rhonda Callaway announced all students will begin online-only courses Aug. 31, and will plan to initiate in-person courses “when it’s deemed safe.” She also announced she still plans to host the Virtual Town Halls for Aug. 17 at 6 p.m and Aug. 18 at 2 p.m. 


Livingston County Schools announced the district will begin the school year online-only for all students, with the date for returning in-person scheduled for Sept. 28. 


Hopkins County Schools Board of Education announced their district will begin with online-only (NTI) courses on Aug. 26. 


Union County Schools Superintendent Patricia Sheffer said the district will begin its school year on Aug. 26 as scheduled, but all classes will be online-only. She issued a statement saying the board previously approved flexible variables including a hybrid alternating schedule and would consider all options moving forward. 


Lyon County Schools announced it plans to begin the school year Aug. 24 offering online-only classes. 


Begin In-Person Courses As Scheduled  


Calloway County Schools Board of Education announced its district will continue with the plan for in-person classes to resume on Aug. 24, for the families who chose that option.


Crittenden County Schools Superintendent Vince Clark announced the district will continue with its plan for in-person classes to resume on Aug. 25, for the families who chose that option.


Hickman County Schools Director of Pupil Personnel Perry Collins announced the.board of education chose to continue with its plan for in-person classes to resume on Aug. 24, for the families who chose that option.


Undecided/Announcement Pending  


Marshall County Schools Superintendent Trent Lovett said after meeting with the Interim Commissioner, Chairman of the KBE, Public Health Officials and others, he plans to recommend to the board of education the district stick to its initial schedule and plan to offer both in-person and virtual options beginning on Aug. 26. The board of education will make the final call during its special-called meeting Aug. 20. 


Ballard County Schools Superintendent Dr. Casey Allen announced in a written statement the district hasn’t made a decision yet. He said any changes to the district’s plan for resuming in-person classes on Aug. 26 would have to first be approved by the board of education, which meets Aug. 17 at 6 p.m.


Graves County Schools Superintendent Matthew Mattingly said the district planned to begin classes on Aug. 26 offering virtual and in-person classes. He said the district has not made a formal decision regarding whether or not the in-person courses will initiate Aug. 26 or if everyone will start via NTI. 


Mayfield Independent Schools Superintendent Joe Henderson said school is scheduled to start Aug. 25, and expects the board of education will decide during its Aug. 17 meeting whether or not in-person classes will be offered initially or if everyone will be online-only.


Carlisle County Schools Superintendent Jay Simmons said the district plans to start the school year on Aug. 24, but the district has not yet decided if in-person classes will be offered at that time or if the entire district will start the year online-only.


Paducah Public Schools Superintendent Dr. Don Shively said he has gathered pertinent information and advice from officials which he will present to the board of education during its Aug. 17 meeting.


This article was updated to correct the name of the superintendent at Fulton County Schools. We apologize for the error.

Rachel’s interest in journalism began early in life, reading newspapers while sitting in the laps of her grandparents. Those interactions ignited a thirst for language and stories, and she recalls getting caught more than once as a young girl hiding under the bed covers with a flashlight and book because she just couldn’t stop reading.
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