Letcher County Schools will return to session in person on August 4, despite a surge in COVID-19 cases that has driven the incident rate to a level not seen since mid-January.
The Board of Education at its regular meeting on Monday voted to go ahead with the opening of school on August 4.
Board Chairperson Mendy Boggs was the only member present at the meeting who voted against the return to school on August 4.
The vote for returning to school next week came after a parent, April Nease, claimed that her daughter had become sick because of wearing a mask, and urged against masks and vaccines, reading a 17-point list of reasons that are circulated online by anti-mask and anti-vaccine groups. All of the points on the list have been debunked by medical professionals.
The board listened to her without comment. During Superintendent Denise Yonts’s report, Yonts told the board that the schools were ready to restart, and that the district will follow the recommendations of the Kentucky Department of Education.
“The two most important things they recommend are masks and vaccinations,” she said.
The district will follow both of those recommendations, Yonts said.
The district will require masks for everyone regardless of vaccination status. Mountain Comprehensive Health Corporation will also offer vaccines free during registration this week.
“My daughter will not be attending your school then,” Nease said loudly as she left.
Yonts told the board that she has spoken with doctors about returning to school in addition to talking to the state Department of Education.
“One of them will say the rate is too high, you shouldn’t go back to school, and another says this is the way it’s going to be in the future, and we’re going to have to get used to it,” she said.
Board member Wi l l Smith said he believes teachers and staff “did a wonderful job” with virtual classes, but that children need to go back to the classroom. He said he hates masks and hopes people can stop wearing them as soon as possible, but until the number of cases falls, they’re necessary.
“Everyone with a child in school should compromise and have them wear their masks,” he said.
Member Robert Kiser also said the district should follow the state’s recommendations. Kiser, who works as an emergency medical technician, said he wears a mask every day and hasn’t been hurt by it.
Board member Lena Parsons said she agreed with Kiser.
Board member Shawn Gilley, who has been a vocal advocate for safety measures for COVID was not present at the meeting. Boggs was the sole member to speak out against opening next week, though she too agreed that students should wear masks “no matter when we go back” to school.
“I agree with what Robert said, but I would like to see us move the start date,” she said.
She said she believes the current spike in cases was started by the July 4 weekend because people were not vaccinated, were not wearing masks, and were crowded together for events and get-togethers over the holiday weekend. While she said she wants students back in the classroom, she was not comfortable with sending them back while the rate is so high.
The board voted 3-1 to go back to school on August 4, with Boggs voting no.
Also at the meeting, the board voted to give employees a $2,000 stipend each for extra service performed during the pandemic, including extra cleaning and sanitizing by classified personnel. Though the original plan was the give the first $1,000 in December, that was moved up with a second vote to August to help employees short on money during a three-week period when they will not receive a regular paycheck.
The three-week lapse is to make up for a changing the school payment calendar that occurs every few years because of leap year. The board made the change after an employee questioned what they were supposed to do about bills during the three-week period when they won’t get paid.
The second payment will be given to employees at the end of the school year.
During the meeting on Monday, Letcher County Central High School Principal Dr. Scottie Billiter told the board that the school has been approved for an exchange teacher from Spain this fall. Billiter said Ana Sanchis Hernandez was expected to arrive yesterday (Tuesday) as part of a visiting teacher program sponsored by the Kentucky Department of Education and the Ministry of Education of Spain.
“In addition to us getting a rich cultural exchange from Spain, she will take back a great cultural exchange from here,” Billiter said.
Billiter said the school has had several foreign exchange students and students from here have gone to other countries as exchange students as well, but this is the first time the school has had a foreign visiting teacher.
Hernandez, of Valencia, Spain, teaches English as a second language to middle school students at her school on the Mediterranean coast. She will teach Spanish language at LCCHS.
Billiter, a former Spanish teacher himself, said he never had the benefit of learning from a native speaker of the language, and students will benefit from that experience.
In addition to Hernandez, the school has hired Sara Coots, an LCCHS alumnus, for a second Spanish teaching slot. She just graduated from the University of Pikeville with a minor in Spanish.
In other business, the board:
• Authorized Yonts to apply for a community service grant that she referred to as “FRYSC on steroids.” FRYSC, Family Resource and Youth Service Centers, is a program begun two decades ago to help students and parents remove social and economic barriers to education.
• Authorized Yonts to join with other public school districts across the state in a lawsuit to strike down a state law that would transfer tax money to private individuals for private school tuition. The suit is being filed by the Council for Better Education, the same group that filed the suit that declared the state’s system of funding schools was unfair to rural schools. The law being challenged is known as House Bill 553.
“Public schools could lose $125 million,” she said.
• Approved a new contract with Kentucky River Community Care to provide adult meals at the agency’s adult daycare centers.
• Approved a memorandum of agreement with Mountain Comprehensive Health Care to provide school health clinics. Boggs, who works for MCHC, abstained from voting on the issue.
• Heard a report from the district Transportation and Maintenance Director that buses will have to be rerouted along KY 588 (the old River Road at Blackey) in order to avoid crossing Redstar Bridge, where the state has reduced the weight limit to three tons.