Note: This is the second of a three-part series highlighting area schools’ preparations for the upcoming school year.
By Drew Bergman
As the days pass by Kentucky inches closer and closer to the return of school. Districts with as little in common as Jefferson County Public Schools and Letcher County Public Schools have already decided to begin the school year online, while tonight the Russell County School Board will hear a recommendation from their superintendent to begin online as well.
However schools begin and whenever students gather together, this fall will not be last spring. The NTI packets students drilled from were a stopgap for a time when educators had almost no time and not enough infrastructure to prepare to continue instruction at a distance. Now schools have had months to adapt.
Continuing on from our coverage of Casey, Russell, and Clinton Counties from last week, we spoke with officials at Green County Schools, Taylor County Schools, and Campbellsville Independent Schools.
“They didn’t train us for this, but I think every district is rising to the challenge,” said Laura Benningfield, the Director of Schools for Taylor County Schools. “Our superintendent is keeping in close contact with other superintendents.”
The contact between educators, districts, and health departments has helped to reinforce a consistent message from educators: “Information is changing daily, so it’s important that our folks, our parents, and our stakeholders understand that flexibility and patience are going to be key this school year no matter if you choose the virtual route or the in-person route,” said Campbellsville Independent Superintendent Kirby Smith. “Plans can change daily. First and foremost, our first concern is that students and staff can operate in a safe environment.”
“We want each family to choose the option that best fits the needs of their respective families. Employees throughout our district have worked tirelessly to create a model that supports a safe environment.” Green County Superintendent Will Hollis said.
School safety begins with busses. Each district has monitors in place to take the children’s temperatures and track their health. Each district has plans in place for sanitizing the busses between their routes and the children as they come aboard.
Though social distancing requires busses to run with fewer students, but already between 10 and 40 percent of students will be staying home, with numbers varying from school to school and district to district.
The schools themselves likewise have stocks and stocks of masks on hand for when teachers and students begin arriving. “We’ll have hand sanitizer and masks on every bus and in every class. Every student will get a mask, though we do anticipate students to have their own,” Mr. Smith said.
“Our Family Resource and Youth Service Centers have ordered each child a washable cloth mask with our logo imprinted. On top of that, the district has ordered thousands of disposable adult and youth masks for classrooms and buses,” said Mr. Hollis.
“We’ve placed orders for every teacher in the district to have clear masks as well,” said Mrs. Benningfield. Teachers across the board have expressed the need for those “especially if they have students who have hearing issues as well as younger students.”
Schools are also working on getting manipulatives for their younger students whose education includes more tactile contact with physical objects that can no longer be shared. “Another thing we’ve been getting our hands on is books. Books are a big concern for us because we know that many of our homes don’t have books for their children.”
Also going into the schools will be floor markers and plexiglass shields to help students adjust to the new spacing requirements and provide an added layer of protection from splatter. And at Taylor County, kindergarteners and preschoolers will have face shields available for reading time.
With all of the concerns about spacing, educators are finding room where they can. “In addition to the cafeteria, meals will be provided in classrooms, gymnasiums, and outdoor settings,” Mr. Hollis said. “We will provide social distancing while also providing a rotation of meal locations.”
Each system is providing distance learning devices for their students. Both Green and Taylor Counties have made a substantial investment in Google Chromebooks, being districts that have utilized the Google platform in the past. Teachers in both districts are certified in Google technologies that will help in the training and preparation of their colleagues.
“Smartphones alone and even iPads aren’t enough to do the depth of work that we’re going to need them to do as far as distance learning goes,” said Mrs. Benningfield.
At Campbellsville Independent their elementary students will be accessing their online learning through Google Classrooms, but at the middle and high school levels they operate off of the Edgenuity education platform and instead of Chromebooks ordered Lenovo laptops, which had provided the basis of their digital learning in years past and worked well for their students.
The schools have reached out to parents not so much to guide education policy, but to show educators to what areas they should guide their policies to. “The biggest concern was having available devices for every child in every family for distance learning,” Mrs. Benningfield said. “As you know, there’s a possibility that we all become distance learners for a period of time potentially if COVID rates continue to increase.”
South-central Kentucky is not known for having the most expansive internet access and any plans for remote learning required schools to gather data they had not needed before. “About 70% of our families responded to the survey,” said Mr. Hollis. “After the survey we have worked with Bluegrass Cellular and T-Mobile to provide access points across our county.” In addition to their work with internet providers, Green County Schools have also purchased busses with WiFi capabilities to serve as hot spots as well as a system for delivering food to children who are learning from home.
Only a small portion of students in Taylor County are currently without home internet and Mr. Smith likewise reported that his technology office has been working with Kinect by Windstream to establish hotspots in areas of need in the city as well as the county.
As educators across the region continue to work on creating the best possible school year in the midst of the most uncertain time in decades, they remain steadfast in their commitment to their duty of care for the children in their charge. “When parents and families are making the decision about sending their kids to school I think if they can be reassured what districts are doing to keep their students safe,” Mrs. Benningfield said.
“We’re taking every precaution,” Mr. Hollis said, “to make sure that our kiddos, our students and staff, are safe.”
“We do not want any family to feel that their child’s education has been inhibited; our district is committed to supporting our children regardless of learning model,” said Mr. Smith.