The Jenkins Independent Schools system opened its doors for the new school year this week without requiring students or staff members to wear facemasks to help prevent the spread of COVID-19.
Members of the Jenkins Independent Board of Education met in a special meeting last week and voted unanimously to approve the new plan, which encourages but does not require the wearing of masks for the 2021-22 school year.
As described in the plan approved by the board, masks are “strongly recommended for all individuals, especially those unvaccinated, while indoors,” but are not mandated by the district. In accordance with guidelines from the federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, however, masks will be required for all individuals riding on school buses, regardless of vaccination status.
The district will also adhere to the CDC’s recommendations for social distancing as well as cleaning and sanitization as part of the effort to prevent the spread of COVID-19. Detailed seating charts for students will also be enforced to aid in contact tracing if necessary.
Jenkins’s reopening plan contrasts with that of the Letcher County school system, which is requiring the use of masks for all students and staff members. The county schools also opened for the new school year on Wednesday.
Jenkins Superintendent Damian Johnson said during the July 29 meeting that the district’s plan is in line with directives issued by the office of Governor Andy Beshear and by the Kentucky Department of Education, both of which only recommend that masks be worn.
“The governor recommends that all people in the school systems wear a mask, vaccinated or unvaccinated, when indoors,” Johnson said. “KDE is doing the same as of right now, and so that’s what this plan says.”
Johnson said the reopening of schools during an uptick in COVID 19 cases “is tough,” adding that the district’s plans “could change at the drop of a hat.” He said there is currently no option for a virtual learning program like that offered during the previous school year. He also said some students suffered severe educational setbacks during the 2020-21 school year by not being in a classroom. Johnson expressed concern over the potential damage to students’ educational foundations if they were to be required to be out of the classroom again this year.
“I know there are people that are strong on one side and there are people that are strong on the other and I respect everyone’s viewpoints on this because it’s difficult,” Johnson said. “Everyone wants to do what’s right, and that’s hard. I do know this: Doing the best we could last year, there was significant learning loss for some students, and I know that the best we can do with that, is it is extremely difficult to recover. And at what point does that become unrecoverable?”
The reopening plan for Jenkins schools passed with little discussion during the meeting. Board member Brenda DePriest said before voting that she believes “Superintendent Johnson has done everything he can to make sure that while your child is here, it will be safe.”
The Jenkins board’s new mask recommendation policy comes as new COVID-19 cases are spiking in Letcher County and surrounding counties. Letcher County’s COVID-19 incidence rate eclipsed 60 cases per 100,000 people on Monday. Letcher is one of more than 100 Kentucky counties now in the “red” zone for COVID-19 incidences. There are 120 counties in the state.
In a follow-up interview after last week’s special meeting, Johnson said it was a difficult decision to recommend any school reopening plan, mask mandate or none. He again discussed the potential damage to students’ educational experience if they were again limited to an all-virtual curriculum.
Johnson said many students last year did not participate in virtual lessons at levels necessary to pass the courses, despite what he said was a stellar job by the district’s instructional staff. He said that if students were to have another year of attending school outside of the classroom, “I’ll never get them back.”
“Having these kids at home is certainly not what’s best for their education,” Johnson said. “I feel like our teachers did a better job than most in virtual (instruction) last year as a whole across the board in the product we put out. But, if (students are) not participating, it doesn’t matter what you’re putting out.
“… It doesn’t matter if you have Einstein teaching classes if no one’s listening. It doesn’t matter the quality of what we’re putting out if our kids are not participating.”
Johnson said responsible decisions should be made by students, their families, and staff members in combating the spread of COVID-19 and the new “delta” variant, which state officials have said is now the dominant strain of the disease. Those responsible decisions, he said, may include choosing to wear masks or to be vaccinated against COVID-19. The school district partnered with Whitesburg-based Mountain Comprehensive Health Corporation (MCHC) to provide free COVID-19 vaccinations at an open house event Monday evening at Jenkins Middle-High School.
“There has to be some personal responsibility of protecting yourself and washing your hands and sanitizing and choosing to wear a mask and choosing to do the things to keep yourself safe,” said Jhnsn, adding that he plans to wear a mask while in the district’s buildings. “If this is going to be our plan, then I’m going to wear the mask. But this is ultimately the board’s decision, and I spent a lot of time talking this over with them.
“I hope it’s the right decision, and if it looks like it’s going the wrong direction, we’ll change,” he said.
In other business at the special meeting, the board approved a resolution in support of a lawsuit filed by the Kentucky Council for Better Education seeking to declare a section of House Bill 563, Kentucky’s so-called “school choice” law, unconstitutional. The bill, passed earlier this year by the state’s Republican-led General Assembly, paves the way for state funds to be used for private schools and for-profit “charter schools.” Johnson asked the board to support the lawsuit while not becoming a party to the complaint, which was filed jointly by Franklin Independent Schools and Warren County Schools.
“I don’t oppose school choice,” Johnson said. “I don’t think a student should be stuck in a school that is low performing if you have the means to go elsewhere. What I do oppose is public funds being used for private education. You simply don’t get the same level of education at a charter school as you do a public school.”
Johnson said the provisions of the bill could result in for-profit private schools being established throughout the state and receiving public funds for operation. As part of the school district’s support of the lawsuit, the district will contribute approximately $181 to help fund the Council for Education’s legal battle. Johnson said the contribution amounts to about 50 cents per student in the Jenkins district.