Note: This is the first of a three part series highlighting area schools.
By Jeff Neagle
The questions on the minds of most people heading into August are centered on the start of school. The uncertainty about the return to class has many people wondering how classes will work and how students who are not attending in-person classes will still receive a quality education.
School systems in south-central Kentucky are taking steps to be as prepared as possible, using CARES and GEERS funds provided by the federal and state government to meet the needs of their community.
The Russell County school system has been working on plans for the coming school year all summer. The fluidity of the situation made it difficult to make definitive plans early on.
“We have been working ever since COVID-19, thinking about how we can deliver instruction most effectively if we were to be in that situation again,” said Superintendent Michael Ford at the June 3 special called board of education meeting. “Plus, our students in our classrooms are certainly in need of technology. Putting those two things together, Russell County Schools are receiving approximately $1.2 million from the CARES Act.”
According to Ford, the first allocation of funds is very restrictive, meant primarily to deal with increasing the capability for remote learning. As a result, the school system voted to purchase Chromebooks for all students in grades two through twelve.
“What we envision is teachers will have access and the students will have Chromebooks and can use them during instruction in the classroom. But if we are out for snow, flu, or if COVID-19 surges again, all of our students in grades two through twelve will have a Google Chromebook,” said Ford. He stated that K-1 students will have a different device. “For the younger students, we are looking at iPads. They are a little more friendly for them to use and we don’t want to leave out any grades, but we also want to make sure we get the best bang for our buck.”
Not leaving anyone out when it comes to remote learning also means having internet access, which didn’t escape Ford’s attention. “We are meeting with Duo-County [Duo-Broadband] to see about trying to get hotspots in those areas [that do not have internet] to try to meet the needs of our students.”
An important concern for the schools is flexibility, and Ford said the additional instruction this can offer to students and teachers will be advantageous.
The school building will also have some changes. Per state guidelines, all desks must be facing the same direction and classes that utilized tables will see those go into storage and individual desks put back in the classroom. The district is also purchasing carts for teachers to utilize throughout the day as they rotate between classrooms, so students can stay in one setting.
“If we keep our students in one population really well and there is a case in a particular class, then the entire school or the entire district doesn’t have to be shut down. That way we can be really surgical in quarantining that one classroom,” said Superintendent Ford.
Russell County students will begin school on August 26.
In Casey County, the central office has collaborated with parents, community and all levels of the district school staff to ensure that student academic, social, emotional, and basic needs are met.
“Every school district, student, and parent has been affected by COVID-19 nationwide pandemic. Our priority is and always will be student safety and success,” said Superintendent Marion Sowders.
The district has focused on the need to provide students with access to technology to continue virtual or distance learning options.
“Utilizing GEERS funding, we were able to ensure our students were equipped with Chromebooks should the need arise to continue virtual learning options, which additionally removes the need to share such a critical piece [of equipment] to independent learning in the classroom setting. Every student in our district will be provided a device that they can use both in home and in the classroom. This helps alleviate many of the concerns for access and sanitation,” said Sowders.
Family resource center directors are working with programs to help families with poor or no internet available to them at home. The Lifeline Program, funded by the Federal Communications Commission, is a program to help subsidize broadband options for low-income families by allowing households to have two connections over mobile and fixed broadband. A second program, Broadband Now, collects and analyses internet provider’s coverage and availability to help consumers find and compare local internet options. Working with these programs, the family resource center is trying to meet the needs of Casey County families obtain internet access for remote learning. Sowders said he hopes the new initiative is successful and helps those families get the service they need.
In addition, the district wanted to meet the need for additional workforce and travel. They have also used funds to add additional hours to supplement food delivery service with bus drivers, as well as to cover the increase in time and fuel for those deliveries.
“To aid in monitoring and support of our student distance learning, individual virtual learning materials and wireless access points help ensure our students not only have access but a means to be successful,” Sowders added.
The district has also used funds to purchase much needed PPE to ensure each student has a face mask and hand sanitizer. PPE is being provided to each classroom in the district as well as each bus in the fleet.
“One of the most critical uses [of CARES funds] has been the ability to supplement additional salaries for our school nurses and food services. Given the growing need to prepare and distribute food to our families, these funds ensured our staff had the time and means to meet the daily needs of our families,” said Sowders. “Casey County is very much appreciative of the CARES funding being provided to help address the dynamic shift that public education has endured since March. The greatest impact we can make as a district is to listen to the needs of our community while we collectively find avenues and ways to help.”
Casey County students will begin school on August 24.
Clinton County schools have put their CARES funds to use to improve technology access.
“We have purchased student Chromebooks, active panels for our classrooms, and digital textbook licenses to be used with the Chromebooks,” said Superintendent Tim Parson.
The district did not limit their use of funds to technology for virtual learning. A portion of the funds received in Albany went toward the hiring of a Healthy at School officer to help with PPE compliance issues related to COVID-19.
According to Parson, the district did not want to use this money in a way that was not beneficial for long-term student success. CARES funds have a two-year window during which they must be spent.
“We thought it was important that the CARES and GEERS money outlive the two years to benefit students and the district beyond those two years. The Chromebooks we bought should last five to seven years and textbook licenses are for seven years. The active panels in the classrooms should last over 20 years,” said Parson.
When school opens, Clinton County schools plan to offer in-person classes at that time but realize that further changes may be coming from the Department of Education and the Governor’s office.
Clinton County students will begin school on August 17.