Letcher County students will not be returning to in-person classes until the rate of COVID-19 infections drops by at least 11 points, according to information provided to the Letcher County Board of Education this week.
The board heard two requests from parents that school begin inperson classes again, but a sharp increase in the number of cases shut down any discussion of returning to the classroom.
Teresa Bentley told the board she has a child in middle school, that while she understands the board has difficult decisions to make, some children aren’t “independent learners” and need the structure of a classroom. She said while some parents might want to keep their children in virtual learning, it isn’t for everyone.
“The ones struggling are going to struggle even more and the divide is going to get even wider,” she said.
She asked that the board make the option of in-person classes available “as soon as you can.”
Board Chairman Will Smith told Bentley he appreciated her call, and understood the challenges parents face with virtual school.
“We all want the same thing,” he said. “We want our kids back in school — but safely.”
Board Member Robert Kiser agreed, saying nothing would make him happier than having kids back in school five days a week, but now is not the time.
“Please understand that whatever decision we make, we’re following the guidance that is given to us,” he said.
Another parent called in by telephone as well, but did not identify herself. She said students are being expected to do schoolwork and parents are expected to help them “without guidance and training.”
“We don’t have the luxury to stand over our child every day,” she said.
Virtual learning, she said, “is not education.”
Superintendent Denise Yonts said the Department of Education has created a map that is updated daily showing the infection rate per 100,000, and counties that pass a rate of 25 must cancel all school activities. Letcher County was at 25.2, up from 24.5 Monday morning.
“We just went into the red zone today,” she said.
In addition to the one employee who currently has COVID-19, 12 are quarantined, Yonts said.
Kiser said, “If I understand this correctly, per the KHSAA, there’s no athletics, there’s no nothing.” Yonts confirmed that he was correct, saying the district is supposed to take the information each Thursday and make a decision for the following week, something Kiser said is “giving parents no time to plan.”
Yonts said the state guidelines allow for some local decision making.
“Right now it’s Monday, so we will look at this again on Thursday,” she said. If the rate were to drop, the district might consider starting school 11 days later to give parents time to prepare.
“Once we go back to in-person classes, we’re going to have to be flexible to go in and out of in-person instruction,” Yonts said.
If the district reaches the point it can return to in-person classes, the board will hold a special called meeting to decide whether it is prudent to do so. In the meantime, Yonts will make any decisions about what to do to meet state guidelines.
Kiser said he assumes it could be two or three weeks at least before the number of cases subsides enough that the district can consider going back to in-person instruction.
“I can’t see us jumping back to yellow overnight,” he said.
Meanwhile, Director of Curriculum and Instruction Ronnie Goins said a survey of parents and students shows they have generally positive views toward the district’s virtual program. The district put out the online survey and invited parents and students to participate, and will be doing another survey asking for teachers’ opinion. He said about 60 percent prefer pre-recorded classes to live classes, and said students have said having those classes to watch later any time they want to has made virtual learning easier. He said he believes it might be good to continue recording teachers’ lectures even when in-person classes return.
“That would be a great resource for students if they could go back and look at the instruction,” Goins said.
Students, he said, most often said it was “very true” that classes were challenging, and parents said they were “very satisfied” with the virtual classes.
“Overall, looking at the data, it was a pretty positive response from our parents and our students,” he said.
Goins said there have been some issues with math, but those have been related to the Internet site used for math lessons, not with the local staff or technology.