This story is part of an update to the 2020 newsroom collaboration series highlighting school reopenings in western Kentucky.
It’s just after lunchtime at East Calloway Elementary School in February, and children wearing colorful masks are walking in a socially-distant line through the hallways. They’re led by a teacher wearing a gray, poofy wig and some seriously dated clothing. Actually, many of the teachers are looking quite elderly. It’s the 100th day of school, and staff are celebrating as old people.
“You're gonna see a lot of people walking around here with gray hair,” said Tina Ryan, the long-time school nurse at the school. She decided not to dress up, but still recognizes the milestone. “To celebrate today, the 100th day, is better than even normal. Because they always celebrate the 100th day. But today, just because we’re here still. We’ve been able to stay in school.”
Amid the uncertain months of the pandemic, that is something for which Ryan said she’s grateful. When WKMS News spoke with Ryan in August last year, she was on the frontlines of protecting her students from an increasingly spreading virus, while her district reopened for in-person classes for most students, against the state recommendations at the time.
Through the winter, daily COVID-19 caseloads and reported deaths statewide soared to new records, eventually spurring Kentucky Gov. Andy Beshear to order school districts stop in-person classes in November to limit the virus’ spread. Ryan has always been an advocate for offering in-person learning options throughout the pandemic, but agreed with the governor’s decision then to close classes due to the rising test positivity rates and upcoming holidays.
For Ryan, the pandemic has been trending in a better direction recently. The number of student cases ever reported in Calloway County Schools has been about average at 66 cases, compared to other school districts in the state with similarly-sized enrollments. The case incidence rate has been falling across the state and in Calloway County. The county has an incidence rate of 4.4 cases per 100,000 people according to the state, making it one of the few counties in the state classified as “yellow” with a lesser rate of “community spread.”
Ryan and her colleagues also have something that’s been long-awaited: a vaccine.
“I was excited to get it,” Ryan said. “It was good for our nurses to be able to be ones that were able to get it pretty quick, so we could show others that yes, we done fine, it's not harmful, you may have some side effects. And that is expected.”
She and hundreds of other employees received the Moderna vaccine in late January. Her only side-effect was a little arm soreness. She said she was amazed that the federal government and company like Moderna were able to produce such an effective vaccine so quickly, but not all of her colleagues are convinced yet to get one. According to the district, only 271 out of 531 employees, including substitute teachers, who were offered a vaccine took their first dose, a little more than 50%.
Ryan said encouraging her colleagues to get a vaccine is critical because it could allow for the schools to reach herd immunity sooner, the idea of having enough people immune to prevent the virus’ spread. The Ohio Valley ReSource previously reported other school district employees in western Kentucky were also seeing hesitancy about getting vaccinated, with only about a third of employees in Fulton Independent Schools saying they wanted a vaccine at one point.
She’s had to answer plenty of questions and dispel concerns from colleagues seeking her advice. Can you get COVID-19 from the vaccine? No. Would she let her grandparents get vaccinated? Yes. Does she really think it’s safe? Yes.
“Yes, you need to get it. This is saving lives. Look at how many people have died, how many people have been sick and in the hospital, and now we have something that's gonna stop that,” Ryan said. “There's so many people that are not going to get that vaccine. And to get that herd immunity, it's gonna take a while.”
The slow approach to herd immunity is one of the reasons why she believes her district will probably still be requiring masks in schools going into the fall semester this year. State guidance is requiring school district employees to continue to follow COVID-19 protocols even after being vaccinated, as the question of whether or not you can still spread the virus after vaccination remains.
Ryan said about 20% of East Calloway Elementary’s students are virtual. When the school district first went to all-virtual instruction in the spring of 2020 due to the pandemic, she thought things would be back to normal by August. She also worries about the students who are learning virtually, and what the continuation of the pandemic could mean for their social development, experiences in life.
“You're not just learning from the books, you're learning how to interact with people and how to be around people,” Ryan said. “It's sad to me...I never dreamed that it would last this long.”
The CDC released guidance last week for reopening school districts, with districts in counties classified with “moderate spread” or less allowed to have full in-person instruction with physical distancing. Calloway County’s spread is currently classified as “substantial spread” by the CDC, calling for schools to move to hybrid learning with small groups of students attending in person, require six feet of distance or more between students, and only allow for masked outdoor sports and extracurricular activities with distancing.
Advocates for reopening schools across the country say the CDC’s guidelines are too restrictive and don’t reflect the science behind low transmission in schools, while teacher unions and other public health experts welcomed the guidance as a solid roadmap for reopening.
There’s still plenty of uncertainty with the pandemic, specifically with what new COVID-19 variants could bring to the region. Many schools in Europe closed down last month due to the threat of a more transmissible variant from the United Kingdom, and the CDC said it could become the dominant COVID-19 strain in the country by March. The first case of the U.K. variant was found in Kentucky last week.
For now, COVID-19 protocols will remain at East Calloway Elementary. That includes blue, taped Xs on the ground in the cafeteria marking where students can stand in the lunchline — and one of the bigger adjustments for Ryan — spaced-out school desks where kids eat instead of long, traditional lunch tables.
Ryan still remains an optimist for the future, as she’s found some stability in routine amid the pandemic.
“We've done so well so far this year, and we just continue to go with the flow,” she said. “Since we've come back from Christmas, we've kind of gotten to a groove of how things are done.”
Ryan and other district employees plan to get their second dose of the COVID-19 vaccine next week.