Boyle superintendent discusses challenges of students returning to classrooms
While summer is in full swing as the calendar prepares to flip to July, a question continues to linger in the minds of many, particularly Boyle County Schools Superintendent Mike LaFavers.
‘What will school look like in the midst of COVID-19?’
With masks, social distancing, isolation, and quarantine becoming a regular part of everyday life in the pandemic, LaFavers is one of hundreds of school leaders across Kentucky wondering how this new normal will play out inside school buildings. However, he said district officials and the district’s Reopening School Committee have been examining all the guidance and formulating plans moving forward as the new school year approaches.
“We actually had a three-hour meeting of that committee this morning [Monday],” LaFavers said. “That’s been ongoing through the month of June.”
Kentucky Gov. Andy Beshear and other state health and education officials recently released guidance for “Healthy at School” which irons out key guidelines for local education leaders to consider and adhere to as students prepare to return to the classroom in the coming weeks.
Among the core tenets of the guidance document: wearing masks, temperature checks, health screening, increased sanitation, contact tracing, and social distancing.
While LaFavers said autonomy within school districts is a good thing, it is sometimes a good thing to have clear direction, especially in dealing with COVID-19, and he said the guidance from the state provides clear direction.
Below is a look at a few of the requirements set forth for schools to reopen.
The topic of masks in schools has generated a lot of conversation but according to the state guidance, students in first grade and higher will be required to wear masks when moving around or when social distancing isn’t feasible.
This would be in instances such as when individuals are walking into school or transitioning classes or going to the cafeteria.
“Wearing a mask is expected, so it isn’t really going to be up for debate in public schools in Kentucky,” LaFavers said. “This isn’t just Boyle County or Danville. This is in Kentucky. If it’s an expectation, you have to do it.”
Mask-wearing among younger students figures to be a challenge, LaFavers said, but he hopes that by explaining the need for masks and setting an example for students, there won’t be many issues.
“If you teach them a concept and explain the importance, and you’re patient with them, our students, once that happens, they will do what they’re being asked to do,” LaFavers said. “We just have to stress the importance of wearing it and how wearing it is for other people.”
In areas where six feet or more of distance can occur, students will be allowed to remove their masks.
Schools are also expected to have extra masks on hand for students that do not have one, and although a requirement, state officials said students should not be punished for not wearing a mask.
LaFavers said he believes more people are coming around to the belief that masks are effective in avoiding the transmission of COVID-19, and added that Beshear has emphasized the importance of wearing masks, even though there is some controversy among people about the effectiveness of masks.
“As far as I’m concerned, the governor has spoken on this issue and he is the governor of Kentucky and he said it is an expectation,” LaFavers said. “He put it into this document and when I talked to our board attorney about it, if it’s an expectation, we have to do it. For us, it is pretty simple. It’s in the governor’s document and it’s an expectation. If children are going to come to Boyle County Schools, they have to adhere to those expectations just like I do.”
Transportation and Temperature Checks
According to the guidance, busses are expected to have full loads and siblings will be allowed to sit together.
LaFavers said being able to have busses at normal capacity is a major relief. With school transportation costs already high in nearly every district across the state, the possibility of adding more bus routes could have been very damaging financially.
LaFavers said it was a logical adjustment to make since bus seats have high backs which can form a barrier between students.
“So really, students are kind of isolated anway,” LaFavers said.
In order for a student to be admitted onto the bus, the student’s parent/guardian must attest each morning that the student’s temperature is not higher than 100.4 degrees Fahrenheit.
LaFavers said the district will be adding bus monitors to provide temperature checks when students get onto the bus in the morning. This will involve two adults on every bus, he said.
Student temperatures will also be taken when arriving onto school grounds by a staff member. Staff members will also be subject to temperature checks, LaFavers added.
Schools are also expected to have a designated isolation area for ill students to wait until a parent or guardian can arrive to pick up the student.
Students will be expected to keep a distance of six feet or more throughout the day. Similar to what has been seen in retail stores, pharmacies, etc., schools will be expected to create markers throughout the building to encourage social distancing.
Schools will also be expected to stagger arrival and dismissal times to avoid creating congestion in common areas within the school.
Non-essential visitors at the school are expected to be limited, as are substitute teachers, student teachers, observers, etc.
Additionally, schools are expected to reduce class sizes and classes/activities that typically require close contact are expected to be modified, per the guidance.
LaFavers said teachers and school personnel may have to get creative with classrooms, even possibly using larger areas such as gymnasiums, cafeterias, or libraries at certain times throughout the day to create a larger space for student instruction.
“Some spaces may have to be used creatively that haven’t been used before,” LaFavers said. “Each individual school will have to look at the spaces that they have and the rosters for those classes.”
Breakfast and lunch in schools is expected to be different as well. State education officials are asking local school leaders to consider offering “grab and go” meals or offering meals in socially distanced classrooms.
Schools are also expected to lengthen meal periods to allow students more time for required hand washing and eating in a socially distanced environment.
LaFavers said meals actually provide a major challenge for the school district as teachers are, by law, supposed to have a duty-free lunch. LaFavers said this can become a problem with “grab and go” meals or meals in classrooms where teachers are expected to supervise students.
“That contradicts the law,” LaFavers said. “So I don’t know if that is even an option for us.”
He said creating social distancing in a cafeteria will be difficult to manage, but options are being looked at such as creating extra cafeteria spaces or spreading lunch waves out longer.
“The other major goal is nutrition,” LaFavers said. “You want to make sure that whatever you’re doing is meeting nutrition guidelines. In our planning, cafeteria time might be the most complicated time of it all, really.”
Beshear and his administration are also asking that 10 percent of a school’s staff be tested weekly for the virus, with the school’s insurance covering the cost of the testing.
When will school start?
What isn’t immediately clear moving forward is how school districts will begin the year. Lieutenant Gov. Jacqueline Coleman, who also serves as secretary of the Education and Workforce Development Cabinet, said each school district will have flexibility on how they begin the school year, noting that some districts will begin the year with traditional in-person classes while others may begin remotely.
LaFavers said details are still being worked on within the Boyle County School District, but an announcement is scheduled for July 10 in which LaFavers said he will announce the opening plan for the school district.
Until then, LaFavers said town hall events are in place to obtain feedback from staff and parents on the reopening of school.
As for when school will start, LaFavers said many districts are looking at a later start date that will provide districts with an opportunity to adhere to required instructional hours as opposed to required instructional days. No decision has been made on that, he said, but he did say that option is being looked at by his district.
LaFavers urged parents to be patient as the beginning of school approaches and be prepared for anything. With this virus, he said, things can change quickly.
“We could have a situation at any given time where one of our five schools has to close for a period of time or a classroom or a grade level or the whole district,” LaFavers said. “These are possibilities. We all hope that doesn’t happen. We just want parents to understand that we may have to have different plans as the year progresses…
“We have had a lot of planning within the Boyle County Schools. A whole lot of planning. I think we’ll be ready for our announcement on July 10. As we always do, we’re going to give every effort to make the 2020-2021 school year a great experience for our children. It’ll be a unique one, but people are working very hard to make it a great experience.”