Superintendents start difficult task of planning for the unknown

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FRANKFORT, Ky. (WTVQ) – Superintendents from Kentucky’s 172 school districts joined Kentucky Department of Education (KDE) leadership  during a May 19 webcast in beginning to prepare for the unknown this fall.

Using the reopening guidance document released by the department on May 15, school leaders began asking and trying to answer a variety of questions about how to start classes for the 2020-2021 school year.

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At the recommendation of Gov. Andy Beshear, KDE is encouraging schools to prepare for three contingencies for the start of the school year: an early opening, a traditional opening and a late opening.

“If you want to open early and you are able to open early and meet the guidelines that are going to continue to come from the Department for Public Health, that is OK,” said Interim Education Commissioner Kevin C. Brown. “We also know that may not work for your community. … You just may not be able to logistically get ready to open in late July or early August. We understand that.”

Brown said the benefit of an earlier start date would be to get instructional days in before a potential spike in COVID-19 cases this fall.

“The governor wanted to make sure districts could be thinking in various different terms because it is going to be a different school year,” he said. “The models were designed to get you thinking about those options. It’s OK, we’ve got your back if you want to open early. We’ve also got your back if you think it’s best in your district to open after Labor Day.”

Kelly Foster, associate commissioner from KDE’s Office of Continuous Improvement and Support, said because of the uncertain nature of the COVID-19 pandemic, schools and districts should be prepared for sudden building closures or a rapid transition to extended periods of remote learning.

“That is something that your district reopening team needs to think about,” said Foster. “Do you have a plan in place if there is a rapid spike come this fall and you do have to go ahead and close in the middle of the fall semester?”

As the COVID-19 situation evolves and additional recommendations from Beshear and the Department for Public Health are issued during the summer, additional guidance documents will be produced by KDE to meet the needs of Kentucky’s schools and districts.

More guidance and resources can be found on the KDE COVID-19 website.

As districts begin working on plans for reopening, superintendents were told it is imperative to think about Kentucky’s most vulnerable students.

“If you haven’t already had conversations with your directors of special education … we would strongly encourage you to do that,” said KDE Associate Commissioner Gretta Hylton of the Office of Special Education and Early Learning. “As you work through the guidance and work through some of these questions, we want to ensure that students with disabilities have equity and access.”

Hylton stressed to the superintendents the importance of students with disabilities being afforded the same opportunities as students that do not.

When schools do begin to reopen, it may not be the least restrictive environment for Kentucky’s medically fragile students.

Hylton listed questions for districts to consider regarding special education students during the reopening planning:

  • How will the district ensure students with disabilities are provided equity and access?
  • What did the district learn about providing specially designed instruction and conducting evaluations during the first round of the virus that it can use to improve programming during a resurgence?
  • How will social distancing be accomplished in all special education environments?
  • How can social distancing be accomplished for students who require 1:1 assistance and supervision?
  • How will free appropriate public education (FAPE) be provided when the student is not physically present in the school building?
  • How will the district support students who struggle with transition if intermittent scheduling has them switching between home and school daily?
  • How will the district consider programming for medically fragile students?

“In order to avoid any discriminatory types of practices or inadvertently engage in exclusionary practices, I would strongly recommend that districts not take the approach that because a student has a disability, then he or she must come to school face-to-face or … must engage in remote learning,” said Hylton. “If those decisions are made due to a student’s unique needs then that should be done through the ARC and the ARC should determine what the least restrictive environment is for a student.”