Students in the Letcher County School System who signed up for in-person classes may be going back to class in two weeks, despite rising COVID-19 figures statewide, and warnings from health officials that another wave of cases is coming.
The Letcher County Board of Education voted 3-2 on Monday night to return to classes on a “hybrid schedule” on November 6, if the county remains out of the red on a map used to make decisions on in-person classes.
The hybrid schedule would require students who did not opt into virtual education before the fall semester to return to classes two days a week. Half of students would attend on Mondays and Wednesdays, and half on Tuesdays and Thursdays. Students would continue virtual instruction on the days they are not in the classroom.
Superintendent Denise Yonts made the recommendation that the board approve the return to school, and Board Chairman Will Smith and Board Member Robert Kiser pushed for its approval. Yonts said about 50 percent of students want to have in-person classes, and the district has plans that have been approved by the health department.
Yonts said nearby districts — Perry, Pike, Knott, Whitley, Magoffin, Leslie and Knox — have tried in-person instruction and had to go back to virtual instruction in a matter of weeks because the districts went back into the red.
“We’re going to have to be very flexible,” she said, noting that the district might have to quarantine teachers, classrooms or whole schools, even if the rates of infection for the county are in yellow or green.
Kiser said he had talked to the superintendent earlier in the day, and “would really like to see the kids back in school five days a week,” though he said he knew that might not be possible until January.
Kiser noted that the schedule for one school called for students with last names beginning with the letters A-M arrive at school at 7:25 a.m., and students with last names beginning with the letters N-Z arrive at 7:35.
“Our parents are going to have to work with us,” Kiser said.
Yonts said the plans vary slightly from school to school, but parents will have to cooperate to make things work. That includes taking their own children’s temperatures every morning, and not sending putting them on a bus if they have a fever. The bus drivers will check temperatures as well, but not until they arrive at school.
Board Members Mindy Boggs and Shawn Gilley opposed returning to school.
“I hate to bounce them back and forth, in school and out of school, in school, out of school, and I see that happening in so many counties right now. Their kids are bounced, and I hate to do that to our kids,” Boggs said. “I agree that they need to be back in school, but they need to be back in school as safely as we can possibly do it. Every large group setting you have, somebody ends up with COVID.”
Kiser, however, said, “If people get the flu, it’s going to be called COVID”.
Parsons said she has seen several students have been moved to other districts, and others have been complaining for students to go back. One mother, she said, wants sports to begin because of her son. Her son has an injury and can’t play, but his mother wants school to start back so he can watch his team play, Parsons said.
Gilley said he had a lengthy conversation with Kentucky River District Health Director Scott Lockard, and does not think now is the time to go back to school.
“When we’re dancing on the line between orange and red, there’s no wiggle room. If the numbers go up just a little bit, we’re back in the red and back to virtual,” Gilley said.
Reached by telephone on Tuesday, Lockard said that ideally, the district should wait until it is in the yellow to return to class so it would have room for a “surge” of cases. The county is already seeing school-related cases, with staff members, spectators at outdoor sporting events and players testing positive. Five cases in the past five days in Letcher County have been among persons younger than 18 years old, and of nine positive cases reported Monday, three were under 18.
“You’re going to have cases when you get back together, that’s just a given,” Lockard said. “My big concern is what do we do when basketball season starts back up? How we’re going to handle an indoor, high contact sport? It’s been hard enough to manage the surge with outside sports. Indoor sports are going to be a whole new ballgame.”
Gilley said there are valid worries about the stress levels on students right now, but he has experienced it personally in three different school districts. He said his daughter goes to school in Harlan County and has experienced “the flip-flop” of going back to school, then out, then back and out again. His son attends Letcher County Central High School and has been attending school entirely virtually and he said he is raising another child who goes to school in Perry County, which has also been in school and back out because of COVID-19 numbers.
“I have experienced three different scenarios within my house, and I can tell you the one under the least amount of stress is my son, because he has been consistent with virtual,” Gilley said.
He said the system isn’t perfect, but “there’s room for improvement in every aspect of our lives.”
“The stress level with the flip-flop has been tremendous,” he said.
He also noted that there is “a staggering number of kids in the county that are being raised by grandparents,” adding that in one family he knows, the grandfather has a depressed immune system because of cancer, and is at high risk of dying from COVID if he catches it. He said he can’t justify going against what doctors recommend.
“I cannot personally put kids back in the classroom when I have experts and physicians telling me now is not the time,” he said.
Smith, however, argued that it’s still two weeks before students would return to class, and if the county is in the red on the Thursday before, it would be cancelled. Smith noted that there is still no vaccine, and experts are saying the only things that can be done are to wear masks, wash hands and stay at least six feet apart.
“It’s going to depend a lot on social behavior,” he said. “If people want their kids back in school, they’re going to have to start wearing their masks and social distancing, and business places — you’ve got business people that are not enforcing the rules.”
Board members agreed that businesses are not enforcing the rules they have been given by the state.
“Those people are going to have to step up. No mask, no service. They’re going to have to step up,” Smith said. “They’re going to have to be reported, they’re going to have to be fined, if they don’t.”
He said there is about 60 percent of parents who want their students back in class and 40 percent who don’t. He said for those who don’t, the district will continue virtual classes, which he called the best in the state. But, he said school needs to be back in session for the others.
“I think they ought to have that choice,” he said.
Kiser, who like Gilley is an emergency medical technician, however, said the most serious patients they see are dialysis patients, he knows of two people who are elderly and have multiple health issues, but have both recovered fine from COVID.
“At this point, I seriously question some of the experts,” he said.
Boggs, however, said COVID-19 is odd because it seems to hit people at random, with some older people being asymptomatic while some younger people become deathly ill. There is more than one kind of coronavirus as well, with influenza, the common cold and Sudden Acute Respiratory Syndrome (SARS) being among them. All affect people differently, and none have a cure.
“There has never been a cure for a coronavirus, and there never will be,” she said.
Gilley questioned what the district will do if the infection rate on November 4, two days before schools start back, is 24.9 when the threshold for cancelling school is 25. Smith said school will resume.
“If we go back and those kids get to go one day, it’s worth it to me,” Smith said. “ Those kids will get to meet their teacher.”
Kiser said he would like to see school start back “even if we’re in the red.”
“Laurel County is doing it,” he said.
Two teachers called into the meeting to oppose returning to in-person classes now.
Valerie Spangler, a teacher at Fleming-Neon Middle School, said she had been a teacher for 26 years, 25 of it in the Letcher County School District, and now her daughter is also a teacher. Her daughter, she said, is young, healthy and became seriously ill with COVID-19.
“She’s 35 years old, healthy, and it hit her like a train wreck,” she said.
She said her son-in-law and grandson also tested positive, but had only mild symptoms. She said there is no way to predict how it will affect people.
“I’m worried if we go back too soon, it’s going to be a domino effect.” Spangler said.
The district has had about eight staff members who have contracted the disease so far, Superintendent Yonts said, and 15 are currently quarantined. Spangler said she was quarantined at one time because she had been exposed, but did not catch the virus.
Jessica Goad, a seventh and eighth-grade teacher at Cowan Elementary School, said her husband is at high risk, and two other relatives who are at high risk. Working in the district, she said she is worried about bringing the disease home to them. She said she doesn’t know how a teacher can teach an in-person class and help students at home, too. She opposed returning to class now, saying that virtual classes are working, and that will be interrupted by a return to class.
“I feel like we’ve gotten in a groove with virtual learning. My students, a good percentage of them, are doing well. They’re giving me good work, they are meeting their learning targets, they are on track where they should be for seventh and eighth grade,” she said.
Asking for one more round of comments from the board, Smith again expressed a desire to return to in-person classes, as did Kiser and Parsons. Gilley said he had already “adequately described” his feelings about the wording of the motion to return to school. Boggs at first declined to speak, saying sometimes things should go unsaid. Coaxed to speak by Smith, Boggs said she wondered where all the people worried that kids will fall behind have been.
“Where were they at in years past when we had kids falling behind? Why was nobody concerned then and suddenly everybody in the county is concerned about the kids falling behind?” she said. “Are we really that concerned about the kids falling behind, or do we just want our kids back in school and using that as an excuse?”
Smith made the motion to go back to school on November 6 if the county is not in the red on October 19. Kiser seconded the motion, and they along with Parsons voted for it. Gilley and Boggs voted against.