Hawkins, Wilson disagree over when to consider in-person return
Schools Superintendent Scott Hawkins recommended the Woodford County Board of Education follow its previously-approved re-entry plan, which may allow students to return to schools for in-person instruction beginning Sept. 14. His recommendation at Monday’s board meeting was questioned by board member Ambrose Wilson IV. He pointed out Gov. Andy Beshear has recommended schools not reopen for in-person instruction until Sept. 28, and asked Hawkins why the board should go forward with a plan that includes making a decision on Sept. 8 about possibly reopening schools for in-person instruction Sept. 14. Hawkins disagreed with Wilson’s assertion that he made a recommendation not to follow Beshear’s recommendation. Hawkins said several school districts were scheduled to start in-person classes next week. That will give board members data “to see how things go for those school districts” and private schools before they re-evaluate the potential of schools here returning to in-person instruction on Sept. 14, he said. “I’m not saying that we’ll be able to return on Sept. 14,” said Hawkins. “But if those school districts have been successful and our (COVID-19) numbers here locally are trending down, it seems to me that getting three (actually two more) weeks with our kids in-person would be a good thing.” Asked to define successful, Hawkins said a situation has not occurred resulting in those schools being closed. “I think we all know, no matter when we go back to school, there are going to be cases because the virus … it’s here now. It’ll be here Sept. 28,” he added. “It’ll be here in October. It’s not going away.” He said schools following the right protocols may be able to manage a limited number of cases without having to close. He said it would be foolish to say there will be no cases when students, teachers and staff are brought back into a building when there is still an active virus. If the numbers are trending down here Sept. 8 and other school districts have been successful returning to in-person classes, Hawkins “I think we have an obligation to our community, to that 65 percent of parents who want their kids back in school to evaluate that and determine if we can get back into school on the Sept. 14.” He said wearing masks is critically important to defend against the spread of the virus. Board member Sherri Springate said she did not see a downside to re-evaluating the local data and a potential return to in-person instruction, but board Vice Chair Dani Bradley voiced concern that the district may open itself up to liability issues if the board chose not to follow the governor’s recommendation. Board attorney Grant Chenoweth said the board may have to explain why a recommendation from the state was ignored if a lawsuit arises from re-opening school earlier than Sept. 28. He said the board would need to explain why its decision was made in good faith. The board agreed to re-visit the issue of a return to in-person instruction at its meeting next Monday. If the board were to follow the governor’s recommendation, fall break may need to be removed from the already approved 2020-21 school calendar. Restricted dollars Hawkins said an accountant from the Kentucky Department of Education informed him that the board’s action to restrict $350,000 in the general fund for a new high school will need to be amended before its project application can be approved. Instead of restricting $350,000 for one year as previously advised by its bonding agent attorney, the board will need to restrict that amount for additional years in order to provide a sustainable funding source, Hawkins said. To Springate, restricting $350,000 in the general fund for one year was a big deal, she said. “But it’s a bigger deal if we’re talking about doing this for over 20 years. That’s over $7 million.” Learning transitions Using a flow chart accessible on the district website, Chief Academic Officer Ryan Asher talked about how students at the elementary, middle and high schools will transition from virtual to in-person learning this school year. If a parent does not choose to send their child to the high school for in-person instruction when schools reopen, that student will switch back to the Virtual Academy, Hawkins said. He said a decision to choose in-person instruction needed to happen this week before class schedules were completed. If more parents choose in-person instruction for students, that may result in a need for additional teachers in order to limit class sizes and adhere to social distancing guidelines, Hawkins said. On Monday, the board approved the creation of five new teaching positions (two at the middle school and three at the high school) and three instructional assistants at the elementary schools. The new positions are for one year only, Hawkins said. Mental health of students Concerns about the mental health of students during the pandemic were discussed by three people who submitted emails for public comment. Cheryl Duncan, whose daughter died by suicide at age 17, said because “mental strain on youth can cause depression, anxiety, hopelessness and … the use of alcohol or drugs …” schools need to provide mental health wellness groups and counselors for students and parents during the COVID-19 pandemic. Woodford County High School physical education/health teacher Melody Hamilton noted suicide has moved up as the second leading cause of death for teens, which she said was disturbing to her. Those numbers do not reflect what has happened since the pandemic spread into the United States in March “and I am terrified about what is happening and going to happen … to our students in the coming months and years,” she said. Hamilton urged educators and other adults to offer words of encouragement to the community’s youth. “Tell them they are important because they are. Tell them they are our future because they are,” she said. “… Get involved in their lives.” Hamilton said she doesn’t know how students of today, who cannot escape social media and being judged every second, navigate their lives. Amy Keller said she worries about her niece not being in school, participating in sports or being with her friends, coaches and teachers. Having grown up in a home where she was verbally abused and looked forward to the start of school, Keller said, “please consider these students who try very hard to look happy, act like everything is okay, but are sinking emotionally.” New COO The board learned that Jeff Martello has been hired as the district’s new chief operating officer. He has been director of finance for Dripping Springs Independent School District in Texas since July 2017. From October 2013 to June 2017, he led a completion of the state takeover of six school districts with fiscal distress in Arkansas for the state Department of Education. “He’s got good experience in school finance,” Hawkins said, including his work with struggling districts in Arkansas. Martello succeeds Amy Smith, who left Woodford County schools to become the chief financial officer for Frankfort Independent Schools. There were 10 applicants and three finalists for the position, Director of Staff/Student Services Garet Wells said. WCMS facility dog The board will be asked to approve a request from Woodford County Middle School to use a certified facility dog. Hazel, a Border collie mix, earned her certification this spring from Pawsibilities Unleashed in Frankfort. Hazel’s owner and WCMS guidance counselor Kelly Sayre said there’s growing research that supports the effectiveness of facility dogs. “I think any additional comfort we can offer (our students), especially this year, is wonderful,” Bradley added. Last school year, Southside Elementary had a facility dog named Sully. Student representative Piper McCoun, a senior at Woodford County High School, was introduced as the board’s new student-representative. “Our student-reps have given us some of the best insight,” said board Chair Debby Edelen. “So never, ever, ever refrain from jumping in or offering something if you have some insight …” Piper succeeds WCHS graduate Ryan Alvey as student-rep. Masks for schools Inmates at the Woodford County Detention will be making 10,000 cloth masks for the school system, board members were told. Board member Allison Richardson was not present for Monday’s meeting.