(The Center Square) – As Kentucky heads into the Labor Day weekend, it will do so with nearly 20% of its public school districts either having been closed or are closed because of the COVID-19 pandemic.
Harrison County Schools and Mayfield Independent Schools said Friday they would move to nontraditional instruction (NTI) next week because of their COVID-19 and quarantine case numbers. Harrison County plans to use NTI all of next week, and Mayfield seeks to use it Tuesday and Wednesday.
According to the Kentucky School Boards Association, 33 of the state's 171 districts (19.3%) have shut down in-person education temporarily during the first month of classes because of the coronavirus.
Similar to Harrison County, a few other districts have announced they will remain closed through next week because the number of students and staff members who have been diagnosed with COVID-19 or are in quarantine after encountering someone who tested positive.
The number of school closings is one sign the surge in COVID-19 cases is hitting Kentucky particularly hard. Gov. Andy Beshear announced 5,457 new cases were reported Thursday; the second-highest one-day total since the pandemic began nearly 18 months ago.
During his COVID-19 briefing Thursday, Beshear said cases in children have risen substantially. He showed a graphic that indicated those age 18 and younger made up about 2,500 cases in August 2020. For August 2021, that total approached 20,000.
Children now account for about 25% of COVID-19 cases in Kentucky.
“That’s why we’re seeing those school closings,” Beshear said. “That’s why we’re seeing more kids in the hospital. That’s why we’re ultimately going to lose more kids nationwide.”
As more education leaders have made the call to keep kids home, it’s bringing back discussion about NTI, an issue many thought the state no longer would have to consider as a long-term option.
The General Assembly passed a law earlier this year limiting school districts to 10 days of nontraditional learning. The legislation mandated any days used for NTI, also known as virtual learning, beyond the 10 would have to be made up by the end of the school year.
Without making up those days, school districts would stand to lose state funding.
As lawmakers wait to be called back into a special session to determine what emergency regulations to keep in place, some education leaders are hoping an extension or waiver for additional NTI days will be considered.
Beshear said Thursday he may call lawmakers back to Frankfort as early as Tuesday, but that’s contingent on how negotiations with Republican legislative leaders proceed.
A spokesperson for the Kentucky Department of Education (KDE) told The Center Square on Tuesday that Commissioner Dr. Jason Glass supported measures that would give superintendents and school boards more options for the school year.
“Commissioner Glass encourages the legislature to adopt statutory changes to allow greater operational flexibility in the current school year and greater funding stability going forward, as school districts work to manage through and recover from COVID-19 related disruptions,” KDE Assistant Director of Communications Jennifer Ginn said.
To prepare for the upcoming special session, the Legislature’s Interim Joint Committee on Education held a hearing Wednesday to learn from school leaders what they need.
Green County Schools Superintendent Will Hodges told the committee his district implemented a rapid testing strategy to keep his central Kentucky district operational.
State Sen. Max Wise, a Campbellsville Republican and co-chair of the panel, opened the meeting by saying the goal should be to keep as much in-school instruction as possible and ensure it’s safe.
“Last year, we know what COVID-19 did to many of our school children,” said Wise, who noted many children struggled to keep up with virtual learning and parents complained about how it interfered with their work schedules.