HARRISON COUNTY, Ky. (WTVQ/Press Release) – Harrison County Superintendent Harry Burchett described the atmosphere as “unsettling.”
Thirty leaders from the Cynthiana and Harrison County area gathered together on March 7, 2020, as Dr. Crystal Miller, public health director of the WEDCO District Health Department, delivered the news that Cynthiana was ground zero for the first case of COVID-19 in Kentucky.
“We needed the facts, and those who spoke shared all the details which are now public knowledge but weren’t at the time,” said Burchett. “I knew that it must be fairly serious because why would one call a community meeting for one case, even if it was the first in Kentucky?
“Well, I got an education that day and I also realized that the district needed to take swift action.”
Nearly a year later, Harrison County has begun vaccinating its teachers, with the hope that the end of the pandemic could finally be in sight.
After the meeting that day, Burchett confided in the other two district staff who were present – Robert Switzer, Harrison County’s director of pupil personnel and facilities director; and Bill Blackburn, the district’s transportation director.
“I told them that I felt like given the extent of the exposure in the medical community, the unknown exposure in the overall community and the yet unknown relationships of those exposed to our students and staff, we needed to consider using our NTI (non-traditional instruction) model for the upcoming week of March 9-13,” he said.
Burchett immediately called a meeting with the district-wide leadership team to make the call to go fully virtual. Once the decision was finalized, he informed Harrison County Judge-Executive Alex Barnett, Cynthiana Mayor James Smith and Miller of the district’s plan.
“They seemed uncertain that the action was necessary at the time,” Burchett said. “But I explained that we had the availability of the NTI days and that it was a safe decision which would give public health the time necessary to get ahead of the situation with contact tracing.
“Little did we know that we would not be returning to school for the spring semester.”
Being one of the 83 districts in the state to be approved to participate in the Non-Traditional Instruction (NTI) Program entering the 2019-2020 school year, Harrison County immediately switched to virtual learning, which would carry on for the remainder of the school year.
As the pandemic escalated, all of Kentucky’s public school districts, the Kentucky School for the Blind and the Kentucky School for the Deaf began utilizing the NTI program, as well.
On top of providing a virtual learning option, Burchett knew he had to do more to help his students and their families.
Located in the center of the Bluegrass Region, the Harrison County school district is home to less than 3,000 students. Over half of these students are considered economically disadvantaged, with 85% receiving free meals daily during the 2019-2020 school year.
The district set up two feeding sites, one at Harrison County High School and the other at Northside Elementary. Each site had both a drive-thru and the ability to deliver meals to students who didn’t have access to transportation to pick up meals.
“Teamwork has been the key to our success,” said Burchett. “It was evident within the community back on that first Saturday in March and has continued throughout the pandemic.”
Burchett believes the action his district took was critical in laying the foundations for the educational response as a state.
“While we didn’t coin the phrase ‘Educate, Feed and Support,’ our team was the first to adopt and implement those goals in response to the pandemic,” he said. “In fact, our team implemented those imperatives before there were any formal support mechanisms from the state or the federal government.
“The National School Lunch Program was never designed for drive-through meals and certainly not door-to-door delivery. Regardless, with the support of our board of education, our team was ready to do whatever it took to ensure our children were nourished, continued learning and had access to social and emotional support.”
As the 2020-2021 school year began, Harrison County continued offering NTI to its students. However, following guidance from local and state health experts, the district began a stretch of five weeks of in-person instruction, which began on Oct. 12.
“It meant the world to our students and staff,” Burchett said. “They were so excited to have in-person school.”
Emma Hanrahan, an 8th-grade science teacher at Harrison County Middle School, said the district was fortunate to be able to spend those five weeks with students. That time allowed her to get to know her students and begin cultivating relationships with them.
“They were able to get to know me better, create a bond, know that I cared about them, be assured I would help them in any way possible and know that I wanted to help them be successful,” Hanrahan said. “They were able to feel comfortable reaching out to me if they had any questions or needed anything once we switched back to virtual learning because of the foundation we established during in-person learning.”
Harrison County has not returned to in-person instruction since the transition back to virtual learning in November. On Jan. 20, however, district staff made substantial progress not only in preparing for in-person instruction, but in protecting their local community.
Back in December, Gov. Andy Beshear asked Kentucky public and private schools to prepare rosters of all school staff who were willing to receive the COVID-19 vaccination.
Harrison County employs a total of 450 staff. Of those, 362 elected to receive the vaccine, Burchett said.
“Every employee was given the option to notify intent to receive the vaccine through a Google form,” he explained. “When that process was complete, we individually contacted by phone any employee who had yet to respond, thereby having a certified number of employees requesting the vaccine.”
When it was time to begin vaccinations, Burchett and other central office employees were the first to receive the vaccines to alleviate any concerns other district staff members may have had.
“Our team felt it important to set the example for our staff,” he said. “I and my team wanted to assure any staff member who may be worried that it was safe.”
Of the 362 employees who signed up to receive the vaccine was Hanrahan, who said it was important for her to protect those around her.
“I chose to get vaccinated so that we can get back to face-to-face instruction,” she said. “I miss my students. I also chose to get vaccinated to protect my parents. They are older and at a higher risk of developing complications if they caught the virus.”
More than 82,000 Kentucky educators and support staff were expected to get their first dose of the COVID-19 vaccine the first week of February. Gov. Beshear plans on Kentucky being the first state to fully vaccinate its educators, a goal that Hanrahan is very happy to hear as it means she’s one step closer to reuniting with her students.
“It feels wonderful to see Kentucky prioritize educators in its vaccine plans,” she said. “My coworkers and I felt hope and happiness to get vaccinated. We long to have our students in person again.
“I miss teaching students face-to-face and watching their eyes light up when they are engaged in a science lab.”
Burchett said the vaccine is a “game changer” for the district. He hopes to continue having as much in-person learning as is safely possible once the vaccination process is complete, and the district will continue to follow the Healthy at School recommendations, “as they are instrumental to protecting our students and staff.”