Gov. Andy Beshear’s expected executive order limiting Kentucky schools to virtual-only instruction through the end of the year could go a long way toward slowing the acceleration of COVID-19 cases across the state, according to some school and public health officials.
Keeping children home will slow the spread of the virus because when children pick it up at school they take it home and spread it around their families, and that makes it more likely to spread further into the community, said Greenup County Health Department director Chris Crum.
“I think it can knock down the numbers to a manageable level,” he said.
Greenup County alone is racking up some three times the rate of cases to keep in the red zone of 25 or more new cases daily (per 100,000 population), he said, and less person-to-person contact could slow it down. There is no reason to expect an immediate turnaround, but the tide could start to turn in a week if the new-case numbers could be controlled, he said.
The governor’s order, which he is expected to sign today, calls for all Kentucky schools to cease in-person classes and go immediately to virtual instruction beginning Nov. 23, which is Monday of Thanksgiving week.
Most area schools are off that week for the holiday anyway.
Under the order, which Beshear announced Wednesday, all middle and high schools will have to remain virtual until Jan. 4, while elementaries will be allowed to resume in-person classes Dec. 7, as long as the school is not in a red-zone county.
Schools will still be permitted to provide in-person targeted services to small groups.
All but eight of Kentucky’s 120 counties were in the red zone Thursday, the day schools have been making the decision whether or not to hold in-person classes for the following week. Boyd, Greenup and Carter counties all were in the red.
“I think it’s a call most people anticipated. I suspected we would be going in that direction,” said Ashland Superintendent Sean Howard. “I have no issue with it. I think we should do as much as we can to keep people safe,” he said.
Whether Ashland will reopen its elementaries Dec. 7 if Boyd County is below the red zone remains to be determined. “We would have to reevaluate as we get closer to the week of Dec.7,” Howard said.
The escalating in virus numbers made Beshear’s decision predictable, Russell Superintendent Sean Horne said. With the numbers of staff and students in his district either infected or quarantined, Russell schools probably would have remained virtual through the end of the year anyway, and the order helped firm up the decision, he said.
The order brings a needed consistency to districts across the state, according to Horne. Individual districts making the call sends a mixed message because officials in some red-zone districts continue in-person classes while others don’t.
“You get a hodge-podge of reasons and decision-making ... whenever you decide to go virtual, some people are in favor and some are adamantly against it, so (the order) assisted us by having some firm direction that reaches across the state,” he said.
“It was a tough call and probably not popular, but to keep everybody safe we have to reduce the number of people coming in and out of buildings, including schools,” said Greenup County Superintendent Traysea Moresea.
Teachers in general seem to be pleased, according to Melissa Salyers, a gifted/talented teacher in the Boyd County district and president of the Boyd Education Association.
“In our district, we are blessed with a superintendent who errs on the side of caution and from the start Mr. (Bill) Boblett has done everything he can to keep everybody safe. But in other districts there is a big relief. Some teachers are worried sick about their health, both themselves and their families. Some are at the breaking point,” she said.
Children in school are at risk for spreading the virus, she said. For instance, a high school student changing classes as many as seven times a day could potentially infect teachers and students in seven classrooms, she said.
Particularly worried are teachers over 55 and some who care for their own ailing parents, Salyers said.
“None of this is easy for anyone and it’s more difficult for working parents, but in our area, with one hospital, we need to be super-cautious,” she said.
Also an issue in eastern Kentucky is the number of homes where grandparents are raising their grandchildren, she said.
Boblett could not be reached by phone by press time but texted that the district is weighing its options on whether to bring elementary children back to school if the county falls below the red by Dec. 7.
Beshear on Wednesday reported 2,753 new cases in the state, 292 of them children, the fourth-highest daily total. He also reported 15 new deaths, including a 15-year-old Ballard County girl, the first student to die because of the virus.
“This virus, at its level right now, will overwhelm each and every one of our schools if we do not take action,” Beshear said.