Keeping students learning in their classrooms should be the overarching goal of any education policies responding to disruptions caused by COVID-19, a key lawmaker said Wednesday.
With more Kentucky school districts pausing in-person learning as the highly contagious delta variant spreads, a legislative panel reviewed options to give local school administrators more latitude in responding to staffing shortages and virus outbreaks.
The hearing came on the same day the Bluegrass State reported nearly 5,000 new coronavirus cases — one of its highest totals of the pandemic — and 12 more virus-related deaths.
The Republican-dominated legislature is preparing for an anticipated special legislative session following a landmark court decision that put lawmakers in charge of setting pandemic policies.
Democratic Gov. Andy Beshear, who holds sole authority for calling such a session, says it needs to happen soon but wants to see a “general consensus” on the path forward before making that call.
Republican Sen. Max Wise said Wednesday that the goal for any pandemic-related education measure should be to keep schools open — while maintaining the safety of students and staff — and to entrust local school boards and superintendents with making decisions that best fit their districts.
As Senate Education Committee chairman, Wise will play a key role in shaping any such measure for a special session. Schools shifted to virtual learning for much of the prior academic year, but Wise said there’s a consensus to avoid that in the current year.
“I’ve not talked to a single educator or superintendent that the goal has not been, let’s do whatever it takes to keep us in-person in the school buildings,” Wise said during the committee hearing.
Wise, who is considering a run for governor in 2023, also stressed his preference for policies that favor local decision-making over a blanket statewide approach for schools.
“We know that a one-size-fits-all approach has not worked well,” he said.
Based on his discussions with superintendents, Wise also said there’s “not any type of appetite” for granting school districts an unlimited number of nontraditional instructional days with students learning from home. Currently, the state can waive up to 10 so-called NTI days to count toward student attendance days in the school districts’ calendars.
One option discussed by local school leaders is a more tailored approach to remote learning, allowing them to apply it to a single school or even a classroom in response to the pandemic, said Jim Flynn, executive director of the Kentucky Association of School Superintendents. Meanwhile, in-person learning would continue for everyone else.
“I think that would be a very welcomed flexibility that would be useful to our superintendents and boards and communities,” Flynn told the committee.
Lawmakers also reviewed another approach — known as the “test to stay” program — being used in some districts. Green County schools Superintendent Will Hodges credited the program for keeping children in their classrooms in his district. Under the program, students exposed to COVID-19 at school and who test negative for six days can stay in the classroom.
“So they’re not quarantined, they’re not sitting at home for two weeks, but they’re able to remain in school,” Hodges said.
In Green County, the program is optional for parents, but most have chosen the ”test to stay” option, he said. Of the 159 students in his district who have participated in the program, 146 of them continued to test negative, he said.
Another pressing issue is the impact the pandemic could have on future school funding.
The lawmakers heard concerns that without adjustments to the school funding formula, pandemic-related absences will hurt future funding for districts. Lawmakers have previously allowed districts to use pre-pandemic attendance figures for years affected by COVID-19.
For more than a year, the governor unilaterally set virus policies in Kentucky. But the state Supreme Court recently shifted those decisions to the legislature. The court cleared the way for new laws to limit the governor’s emergency powers, which he used to impose virus-related restrictions.
Since the ruling, Beshear has been negotiating with lawmakers in preparation for the expected special session. Various emergency measures previously issued by the governor are set to expire as a result of the court decision. It’s up to lawmakers to decide whether to keep them in place.
Meanwhile, the state reported 4,941 new COVID-19 cases on Wednesday — its third-highest daily total of the pandemic, Beshear said. The state reported 1,560 new infections among Kentuckians 18 and younger.
More than 2,260 virus patients are hospitalized in Kentucky, including 644 in intensive care units and 410 on ventilators, according to the daily report.