Quarantines, staffing shortages close some Kentucky schools; new law limiting options for school leaders

Published 5:51 am Friday, August 27, 2021

Facing a rise in new coronavirus cases, some Kentucky schools across the state are grappling with the unintended consequences of new legislative limits on at-home instruction, leaving some students out of school for up to two weeks.

A law passed by Kentucky’s GOP-dominated General Assembly this year, returned schools to their usual limitations on non-traditional instruction or ‘NTI’ days. Now, once schools go past their limit of 10 NTI days, they have to make up any others by adding more instructional days on to the end of the school year.

The bill received some Democratic support in both chambers, and Democratic Gov. Andy Beshear signed it into law.

The legislation also required school districts to submit their plans for the upcoming school year by the end of May, when the rate of new coronavirus cases had slowed to roughly a few hundred new cases a day.

Now, months later, with Kentucky reporting an average of more than 3,000 new coronavirus cases a day in the last week, several school districts have had to cancel school altogether to keep up with staffing shortages and large student quarantines.

Lee County School District, for instance, has closed school for all instruction, virtual and in-person, until Aug. 27, Wasson confirmed in an interview Thursday. Students who had previously opted in to virtual learning at the beginning of the school year, will continue, but all other students will instead use at-home learning packets until Sept. 7. The school year began in Lee County on Aug. 10.

A small, rural school district already contending with teaching shortages, schools there had previously closed for three days last week due to coronavirus cases in both students and teachers. In one instance, a quarantine of nine staff members prevented the elementary school from resuming fifth grade classes after a brief shut down.

“​​We hope that the separation will help us slow the spread of the virus and determine who might be positive from the recent quarantines,” Superintendent Sarah Wasson said in a letter to families Wednesday evening.

In the previous school year, schools had unlimited non-traditional instruction days, which gave school districts like Wasson’s the ability to pivot to at-home learning in the event of an outbreak. In order to have that option again, the state legislature would have to pass a new law to add more days.

Though she has urged concerned parents to contact Senate President Robert Stivers and state Representative Bill Wesley, Wasson said she plans to reach out to them soon. The district’s board president and several teachers have also reached out, she added.
Asked earlier this week if there would be a need for a special legislative session, Stivers said some legislative tweaks might be needed, including to nontraditional instruction days.

Still, with the pandemic-related state of emergency ending as a result of a recent state Supreme Court ruling, Beshear is weighing whether to convene a special legislative session. If he does so, he has the authority to set the agenda, and said Monday he is in ongoing talks with legislative leaders about the possibility.

Meanwhile, Greenup County closed schools Wednesday for the rest of the week, without virtual instruction. The days off will be added to the school calendar, Superintendent Traysea Morsey said in a letter to parents.

“The number of students and staff who are positive and/or quarantined has greatly impacted our ability to operate buses, kitchens, and maintain classroom staffing,” she said. “The next two days will be used for our staff to regroup, make long-term plans and thoroughly clean our facilities.”

Magoffin, Leslie, Knott and Jenkins are among other school districts that have also shut down for multiple days due to COVID-19 since the beginning of the school year.

Kentucky youngsters have accounted for larger shares of new COVID-19 cases in recent weeks. More than 1,500 of new cases logged Wednesday were children.